David de la Cruz got Team Ineos back on the front foot after a terrible start to the Vuelta a España on Thursday, but he fell short of taking the victory or overall lead on stage 6, his struggles on the final climb hardly inspiring him with confidence despite his rise up the general classification.
The Spaniard started the day 23rd overall, 4:35 down on leader Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), but the best-placed of Team Ineos, whose leaders Wout Poels and Tao Geoghegan Hart lost more than 10 minutes as early as stage 2.
After Poels had gone on the attack on the two early climbs, De la Cruz made it into an 11-rider breakaway that formed after 50km on the 199km road from Mora de Rubielos to Ares del Maestrat. The break went all the way, opening such a margin that the 30-year-old started the final climb – the category-3 Puerto de Ares – as the virtual leader.
However, also present was Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), who was just eight seconds behind him at the start of the day. When the Belgian attacked strongly 4km from the top, passing the earlier attackers and riding to the line with eventual winner Jesus Herrada (Cofidis), De la Cruz lost ground and finished in ninth place, nearly a minute down.
"It was a really hard day. Honestly, I was thinking about the stage victory, but in the end I didn't have the legs to beat these guys who today were stronger than me," De la Cruz said at the finish.
"What can I say? I just gave my best but, as you can see, it was not enough. You have to keep trying and let's hope a good result is coming."
De la Cruz’s preparation for the Vuelta was far from ideal. He was not named in Ineos’ initial line-up but got the call at the last minute, much to the bafflement of Kenny Elissonde, who was told to go home having already arrived in Spain.
That said, De la Cruz pointed out that his season as a whole has been far from ideal.
"The difference was all year. I haven’t had the perfect year, with injuries and crashes, but things come as they are," he said.
"Every situation has two faces – the good one and the bad one – and you have to look at the good one, otherwise you start to cry. That’s how it is. They were stronger than me. I don’t want to find excuses."
Despite missing out on the stage win and the red jersey, De la Cruz nevertheless moved up to second overall, 38 seconds down on the new leader, Teuns, and 22 seconds up on Lopez.
Having finished seventh overall at the Vuelta three years ago, he has calibre as a Grand Tour rider, and has been given something of a second chance. However, the way he lost time on stages 2 and 5, and struggled again on the final climb on Thursday, prevented him from announcing himself and his team as back in the GC hunt.
"The important thing is the legs. I lost quite a lot of time yesterday and also on the Calpe stage. If you lose time like that, you cannot keep thinking about GC," De la Cruz said.
"Let’s see how the legs are tomorrow, then we’ll see."