Gianluca Brambilla animated the day from the escape, before his teammate sprinted to second place in Bilbao.
Vuelta a España returned to the Basque Country on Thursday for the first time in five years, at the end of a long day, which started in the Cantabrian town of Los Corrales de Buelna and saw the riders spend nearly 200 kilometers in the saddle at a fast pace from the start to the finish. It was only on the first of the four mountain passes that Gianluca Brambilla slipped away together with six other riders – Darwin Atapuma (BMC), Kenny Elissonde (FDJ), Romain Hardy (Cofidis), Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida) and Team Sky duo Peter Kennaugh and David Lopez – and put some daylight between them and the bunch.
On paper, it should have been a stage for the escapees, but the advantage didn't exceed three minutes as some teams were keen on fighting for the win in Bilbao and as a result pulled hard behind the leaders, who waved the flag at the foot of the last climb, Alto El Vivero (4.2 kilometers, 8.5%), despite Gianluca's efforts of keeping the chasers at bay. As soon as the catch was made, a flurry of attacks soon followed and Dries Devenyns (IAM Cycling) was the only one to get a gap and surge clear over the top of the climb with 30 seconds in hand.
The Belgian was reeled in inside the final kilometer by a peloton which was counting less than 50 riders and went on to fight for the stage victory. Maxime Bouet, who protected David De La Cruz (9th in the GC) on the ascent, got involved in the sprint and finished runner-up, just behind Jens Keukeleire (Orica-BikeExchange), for his first career podium in the Vuelta a España. It was for the 16th time this season that an Etixx – Quick-Step rider came in the top 3 of a GT stage, half of these results being victories, which make of our team the most successful of the year in terms of Grand Tour victories.
"On one hand, I have a bitter feeling, because I came so close, but on the other hand I am content, as I put in a good ride and had strong legs. Astana made the stage really difficult, but I stayed in the bunch on the climbs, knowing I might have a chance in the finale. I launched my sprint with around 250 meters left, did the best I could, but Jens was stronger today", said Maxime Bouet, who vowed to try again until the end of the race. "Last year, in stage 12, I was caught by the pack with 200 meters to go; now, on the same stage 12, I finished second. It's not bad to be on the podium of a World Tour race, but you can be sure that I'll not stop here and go for other strong results in the stages which are yet to come."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele