Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) claimed his first ever Grand Tour victory in the Vuelta a España on Sunday after a dramatic race that was not decided until the final mountain stage, 24 hours before the finish in Madrid.

Second overall was Spanish veteran Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) and back on the podium of the Vuelta a España for the first time since the climber took third overall in 2012. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) captured third, at 26, this is Majka’s first podium finish in a Grand Tour, and the first time a Polish rider has finished on the podium of the Vuelta a España in its 80 years of existence, too.

For Aru, at 25, victory in the Vuelta a España is the Italian’s first triumph in one of cycling’s top three stage races, and his second Grand tour podium finish this season, too, after taking second in the Giro d’Italia this spring. Fifth in last year’s Vuelta a España, with two stage wins to his name last year, the Astana Pro Team rider has now taken another big step forwards – and upwards – in the Spanish race in 2015.

The Vuelta, though, proved to be a cliff-hanger right up until stage 20, when the race tackled its last mountainous stage in the sierras of Madrid. By that point in the game, Aru was trailing race leader Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant-Alpecin) by six seconds, and the Dutchman looked poised to take the outright victory.

However, on the third of four first category climbs, the Alto de La Morcuera, Aru and his Astana Pro Team managed first to distance Dumoulin and then finally to drop him. With a margin of 15 seconds on the race leader at the summit of La Morcuera, Aru’s advantage was slender, but as Dumoulin continued to lose power, Aru’s victory bid steadily gained traction as other Astana riders dropped back from an earlier breakaway to support and open up their leader’s gap.

By the finish, Dumoulin had lost over seven minutes on stage winner Ruben Plaza, nearly four minutes on Aru and slid to sixth overall on overall. 24th Aru moved into the overall lead with a definitive lead that he would hold to Madrid 24 hours later whilst Rodriguez and Majka, meanwhile, fought out their own private battle for the podium positions after the Polish rider broke away on the last climb. Rodriguez though was strong enough to remain in control of second place overall.

“It’s been a very nervous Vuelta, with a lot of climbs, a lot of stress, many crashes. I’ve had to make a huge effort to be fresh for these last few days, but I’ve stayed calm and kept telling myself that the race wasn’t over until Madrid,” Aru said.

“Tom Dumoulin has been a very hard rival to beat, showing that he will be a rider who is sure to fight for Grand Tours in the years to come. He’s a great all-rounder, he’s as great a time triallist as he is a climber. He’s shown right from the start that he’s a very strong racer.”

Dumoulin showed he was in top form as soon as the first uphill finish at El Caminito del Rey on stage two, when he finished close behind another promising young rider, Orica-GreenEdge’s Esteban Chaves. Throughout the first week, Dumoulin and Chaves tussled for the leader’s jersey and snapped up stage wins, until Aru’s stunning second place behind team-mate Mikel Landa in the Vuelta’s hardest stage, in Andorra, allowed the Italian to gain the overall lead.
By stage 16, after three more summit finishes in northern Spain the situation seemed to be turning against the Italian, though, as Aru ceded the lead to Joaquim Rodriguez on the ultra-steep slopes of Ermita del Alba. Then following the time trial in Burgos, won in impressive style by Dumoulin, Aru remained in second place and just a handful of seconds behind the Dutchman. Finally, at the last possible moment, the Italian’s attack in the mountain of Madrid saw him regain the lead – this time for good.

“Without my team-mates assistance, this wouldn’t have been possible,” Aru said after he stepped up to claim the last leader’s jersey of the race. “I had to stay concentrated throughout. It’s been a very difficult race though, and I’m proud to have won it.”

Following the last stage of the Vuelta and the GP Cycliste de Montréal this Sunday, the UCI WorldTour continues with Il Lombardia, the final ‘Monument’ of the season on October 4th.