John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) continued his love affair with the Vuelta a Espana as he tightened his grip on the green jersey with stage win number four for this year in A Coruna.
Degenkolb outsprinted Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE), despite being without a lead-out, to earn his ninth career victory in the race and also send out a warning shot ahead of this month’s World Championships in Ponferrada.
The victory also extended his green jersey lead to 35 points, with second-placed Alejandro Valverde staying safe in the peloton alongside his GC rivals, leaving Degenkolb on the brink of becoming the first sprinter to top the points classification since Mark Cavendish in 2010.
The day had begun in sombre fashion, with the riders paying tribute to the Guardia Civil who died after a crash on stage 16.
Three of the riders to have completed that stage – Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Tanel Kangert (Astana) and Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) did not start the stage.
Uran, his team confirmed, had been suffering the effects of asthmatic bronchitis as he tumbled down the general classification prior to the rest day – becoming the second of the pre-race favourites, after Nairo Quintana (Movistar), to leave the race.
When the stage did get underway, however, there was a flurry of action from the start, with plenty of riders wanting to get in the break on the undulating course.
A five-man move eventually made some headway, with rising stars Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) and Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) among them.
Elia Favilli (Lampre-Merida), Lluis Mas (Caja Rural) and Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN-Qhubeka) completed the group but their advantage was always kept in check as the sprint teams led the bunch.
Giant-Shimano were prominent on the nose of the peloton throughout the stage and though the gap to the escapees held around the two-minute mark it never looked like becoming too much – particularly when Mas and Teklehaimanot sat up.
Nevertheless, Dennis and Favilli persisted, dropping Jungels as they ramped the pace up on a series of uncategorised hills.
The peloton were also wary of the small ascents, with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) sufficiently worried by Team Sky’s presence at the front to latch onto the wheel of third-placed Chris Froome.
Froome remained content just to stay out of trouble, however, making no attempt to launch any audacious attacks and dropping back into the bunch as the sprint teams re-took control on the front.
Giant-Shimano used all their efforts chasing, with Dennis and Favilli still leading under the flamme rouge even though their advantage had been virtually been wiped out by then.
They were eventually swept up inside the final kilometre to set up a chaotic bunch sprint, form a slightly reduced front group, with Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida) first to kick.
Again, however, the Italian did not have the legs for the long sprint, with Matthews and Degenkolb delaying their accelerations.
When the German went, however, he was simply unstoppable once again as Matthews could not close down the gap to man in the green jersey.
Further back, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) stormed to an unexpected third place, having been leading out Jasper Stuyven – the latter finishing fourth.
It was once again, however, a day to remember for John Degenkolb on what could be the final chance for the sprinters in this year’s race.
Vuelta a Espana 2014: stage 17 – result
1) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Shimano – 4.26.07hrs
2) Michael Matthews (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE – ST
3) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – Trek Factory Racing
4) Jasper Stuyven (BEL) – Trek Factory Racing
5) Roberto Ferrari (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
6) Koldo Fernandez (ESP) – Garmin-Sharp
7) Geoffrey Soupe (FRA) – FDJ.fr
8) Danilo Wyss (SUI) – BMC Racing
9) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale
10) Vincente Reynes (ESP) – IAM Cycling
1) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 67.51.07hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.36
3) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +1.39
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +2.29
5) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +3.38
6) Daniel Martin (IRL) – Garmin-Sharp +6.17
7) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +6.43
8) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +6.55
9) Warren Barguil (FRA) – Giant-Shimano +8.37
10) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale +9.10