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The Vuelta’s 11th stage: Five passes, 16,400 feet of climbing in 138 kilometers. An early breakaway formed, 19 riders up the road on the first category 1. Ian Boswell, Team Sky’s young American climber, found himself in the mix, among the 19, expectations rising with each successive climb.
On the first climb, Collada de Beixalis, where the breakaway was established, Boswell did his job. Protect Chris Froome, cover moves that look dangerous. Listen to the earpiece, jump when needed. “It was pretty full-on,” Boswell said. Still a worker, pushing pedals for his leader, the 24-year-old jumped across to a dangerous group. “I just happened to be up there and was able to follow it. From there the gap just went.”
On each successive climb — Coll d’Ordino, Coll de la Rabassa, Collada de la Gallina, Alto de la Comella — Boswell stayed near the front, but not on it, tapping away, his head tilting just a bit to the left as the pressure mounted near each peak. He still rode with an ear up, waiting for a call from the director to return to Froome’s aid. That call never came.
As Froome struggled behind, crashing and losing time to other GC favorites, Boswell was given the green light to forge on ahead. At the base of the final climb, a category 1 ascent to the 7,000-foot Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp, the prospect of a stage win slowly edged up over the horizon. With two minutes in hand and the breakaway whittled to half its original size, Boswell got the call.
“I got to the bottom and [Sport Director] Dario [Cioni] came up to me and said ‘two minutes — race for the stage,’” Boswell said. He was free to run, off the front with just a few kilometers remaining in the Vuelta’s toughest stage.
The presence of Astana’s melancholy Giro d’Italia henchman, Mikel Landa, in the breakaway made a stage win a tough ask. But Boswell gave it a crack, hauling himself behind the Spaniard until the final kilometers. Only one rider from the main field would catch him, Astana’s leader, Fabio Aru.
“I didn’t really expect us to actually stay away, probably until Aru came up to me, and then I thought if I could stay with him for a bit I could hang on for a top three,” Boswell said.
That’s precisely what he did, head tilted left, elbows out. Boswell fought on Aru’s wheel for a kilometer before losing contact. But the ride, Boswell’s finest ever at this level, netted him third place in the Vuelta’s toughest stage, behind two podium finishers at the Giro, riding a pace that very nearly equaled that of the GC favorites charging in behind him.
The young man from Oregon played down the result as a sort of happy accident, a way to gain experience. “I’m still learning a lot with every breakaway I get into,” he said. “It’s all experience.” But it was more than experience, this time: It was a hell of a ride.