SANTUARIO DEL ACEBO, Spain (Reuters) - Primoz Roglic maintained his sizeable lead over Alejandro Valverde in the Vuelta a Espana after stage 15 on Sunday but both widened the gap over the rest of their rivals in the general classification.
Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team mate Sepp Kuss took the stage win.
United States rider Kuss attacked on the last of the four first category climbs with six kilometres remaining of the punishing 154.4 km mountain stage from Tineo to Santuario del Acebo in Asturias to catch up with lone leader Sergio Samitier.
Kuss, 24, held his own on the summit finish, coming over the line 39 seconds ahead of second-placed Ruben Guerreiro to earn his first Grand Tour stage win, while Tao Geoghegan Hart of Team Ineos came third, 40 seconds behind.
“I wanted to ride within myself and have a little bit in reserve in case Primoz came across. Maybe it was a bit too early to go, but I felt good,” Kuss told reporters.
“I knew that the first few kilometres of the climb were the hardest so I tried to be in a good position and wanted to ride at my own rhythm. There were no mind games.”
Valverde launched an attack on Roglic shortly afterwards in a bid to reduce his overall deficit although the Slovenian was up for the fight and the pair stayed together to come eighth and ninth respectively, two minutes 14 seconds down on Kuss.
Valverde still trails Roglic by two minutes 25 seconds but the Vuelta now looks set to be a two-horse race after the pair caused considerable damage to the other contenders.
2016 winner Nairo Quintana suffered the most, finishing three minutes 50 seconds behind Kuss and now trails Roglic by five minutes nine seconds.
His compatriot Miguel Angel Lopez also saw his hopes of an overall win fade as he lost 41 seconds on Roglic.
Lopez came over the finish line at the same time as Tadej Pogacar, who remains third overall but fell three minutes 42 seconds behind Roglic and lost 40 seconds to Valverde.
“My legs were feeling good so I decided to attack from afar and I have to say thanks to Roglic and to (Movistar team mate) Marc Soler for working so hard,” Valverde said.
“After all that hard work it would have been very bad if I hadn’t gained anything but 40 seconds is a very good amount.”
Monday’s stage is a 144.4 km ride from Pravia to Alto de La Cubilla. Lena, another punishing mountain stage before Tuesday’s rest day. The race concludes next Sunday in Madrid.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Ian Chadband