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by Shane Stokes
September 14, 2014
Vuelta a España race leader Alberto Contador underlined what is surely his overall victory in the event when he raced to solo success on the final mountain stage of the race, the Puerto de Ancares. The Tinkoff Saxo rider resisted all of the expected attacks by closest rival Chris Froome (Sky) on the last climb, staying glued to his back wheel as the other GC riders fell away.
Contador then jumped hard inside the final kilometre and sped away, reaching the line 16 seconds ahead of his British rival. The move was a carbon copy of his tactics on stage 15 and had the same effect, bolstering his lead over a frustrated Froome.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) came in 57 seconds back in third, while Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), who gambled all with an early attack on that last climb but was later caught, trailed in fourth, one minute 18 seconds back and three seconds clear of Fabio Aru (Astana).
Contador said that going up against Froome motivated him greatly. “It’s very motivating to try and beat a rider of this calibre,” he said. “Considering the record book he’s got and the rhythm at which he’s able to ride, it’s encouraging to be able to challenge him. You always like to win against the world’s best riders. Truly, it’s motivating to win when it’s difficult.”
Asked how he coped with the Sky rider’s accelerations, he said that his body responded well. “It wasn’t easy,” he added. “Sometimes you think you lack rhythm or strength and the pace changes again. That’s when you have to know that you can react. You have to resist.”
The top five on the stage were also the first five in the general classification; Contador extended his lead prior to the final time trial to one minute 37 seconds over Froome and two minutes 35 seconds over Valverde.
With the final time trial being just 9.7 kilometres in length, he knew that, barring accident, he had essentially won his third Vuelta.
Froome must look towards 2015 for revenge while Valverde and Rodriguez will once again rue their decision not to ride with Contador when the Briton was dropped on stage 15. Had they done so, it is possible that one or other might have been in second place, although the performance on Saturday suggested the Briton would likely still have found the time he needed.
The penultimate stage of the Vuelta a España was also arguably the most difficult, with a succession of tough climbs facing the riders and culminating with the special category Puerto de Ancares. The race from Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil was 185.7 kilometres in length and hardly featured any flat roads, with the pitch of the road continuously going up or down.
The first intermediate sprint came at Sarria, 89 kilometres after the start, but while nothing before that was categorised, there were several big climbs.
The first official mountain was the category two Alto de Vilaesteva (km. 109.6), and this was followed by the category three Alto de O Lago (km. 128.4) and the category one Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas (km. 163.6).
After a short descent the riders would then face the final climb, a gruelling 12.7 kilometre uphill grind to the finish line. The Puerto de Ancares averaged 8.7 percent but included much steeper sections, including one of 18 percent. It also incorporated the final intermediate sprint of the day at Murias (km. 175), two kilometres after the climb started.
There were three non-starters; the first was Dario Cataldo (Sky), the rider who crashed hard in Friday’s finale. He had concussion and the team decided it was not prudent for him to continue. Also not signing on were Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) and Pieter Serry (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Several groups got clear early on but were then caught. After 20 kilometres Danilo Wyss (BMC Racing Team) and Christophe Le Mevel (Cofidis) were ahead but were chased down by the first half of the peloton, which had split several minutes earlier.
The second half of the bunch was still chasing and everything came back together after 30 kilometres. Soon afterwards Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida), Jerome Coppel (Cofidis) and Maxime Mederel (Europcar) clipped away and were able to built a 20 second lead at kilometre 35. They were joined by Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) five kilometres later, and the day’s move was formed.
The quartet knuckled down to building their lead and by kilometre 50 it had established a three minute advantage. This soared to five minutes 30 seconds nine kilometres later, prompting the Caja Rural team to chase. However it gave up on that pursuit at kilometre 68, and the lead ballooned to ten and a half minutes by kilometre 79.
Coppel was first at the intermediate sprint in Sarria (km. 89) ahead of Poels and Niemiec. Sky had taken up the chase and had cut the lead by a minute at that point.
Poels led Mederel, Coppel and Niemiec over the top of the Alto de Vilaesteva (km. 109.6). The peloton was seven minutes back at that point but backed off slightly when a rain shower happened, making the descent slippery.
Niemiec led the break over the Alto de O Lago (km. 128.4), edging out Coppel, Poels and Mederel. The bunch continued to cut the advantage and was five minutes 50 back there. This was further cut to four minutes 50 seconds with 46 kilometres to go, and was down to three minutes 20 seconds by the start of the first category Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas (km. 163.6).
Poels was dropped soon after the start of the climb. Mederel attacked five kilometres from the summit and initially got a gap, but first Niemiec and Coppel managed to bridge.
Niemiec lead Mederel and Coppel over the summit, holding a lead of approximately 45 seconds over the Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky)-led peloton. Niemiec then attacked on the descent in a bid to get an early advantage on the final climb. Coppel managed to bridge and the duo hit the bottom of the final climb with a 35 second lead.
Niemiec attacked again and managed to shed Coppel, who was caught just before the intermediate sprint. The lone leader took top points there, then Froome sprinted in ahead of team-mate Siutsou to take the bonus for second place.
Race leader Contador didn’t react, believing it was better to save his energies for the summit rather than scrabbling for seconds.
Niemiec was finally hauled back by the Sky team. The British squad was pushing hard, trying to put pressure on Froome’s rivals prior to the expected surge by the Briton.
With 8.9 kilometres to go Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) put in a surprisingly early attack, and opened a gap over the others. He started the day fourth overall and was determined to force his way onto the podium, if not into the red jersey. However to do that he would need to take two minutes 29 seconds out of Contador, a tough ask.
The rider just ahead of him in the general classification, Alejandro Valverde (Movisar) was understandably concerned and tried to go after him. He got a small gap over the others, with Froome leading Contador and Fabio Aru (Astana) behind. The other riders were dropped, meaning the top five riders in the general classification were scrapping it out between them.
Going past the eight kilometres to go banner, Froome had got back up to Valverde. Rodriguez was still clear and Valverde pushed ahead again in a bid to get across. However he was caught once again.
With 7.3 kilometres remaining Rodriguez was 18 seconds clear, and over the next kilometre he increased it to exactly half a minute. Froome then accelerated, putting Aru out the back, and opening a couple of bike lengths over Contador.
Valverde appeared to suddenly crack and went backwards, leaving just Froome and Contador in pursuit. Froome jumped again with 5.7 kilometres to go and while he was unable to detach the race leader, he reeled in Rodriguez. Valverde was still 11 seconds back and knew he had to try to get back up to the trio.
With 5.3 kilometres Froome tried to go again but his move was quickly covered by the two riders with him. He continued to lead, trying to soften the others up, while Valverde continued on alone behind, willing the gap to close but being unable to do so.
Rodriguez was dropped with 4.3 kilometres, the Spaniard sliding backwards towards GC rival Valverde. They joined up with fractionally over four kilometres to go and almost immediately Valverde attacked and got a gap.
The gaps with two and a half kilometres remaining were 19 seconds from Froome and Contador to Valverde, and a further 18 seconds back to Rodriguez and Aru, who had joined up together in their chase.
The big question was whether or not Froome would be able to drop Contador. He knew he needed to take time on him to stand a chance of overhauling him in the final stage time trial, but the race leader had resisted all of his attacks until that point.
The latter looked uncomfortable heading into the final kilometre and once again Froome jumped. Contador covered the move and did so again when his big rival attacked inside the final 800 metres.
The race leader then made his own surge, kicking hard, immediately opening a gap and speeding towards the finish.
He crossed the line with his signature Pistolero move, ending the stage 16 seconds ahead of Froome. Valverde came in for third, 57 seconds down, then Rodriguez pushed ahead of Aru for fourth. He was one minute 18 seconds back, and Aru a further three seconds behind.
The stage result was a perfect reflection of the overall standings, with the first five on the former reflecting the same in the latter. It consolidated each riders’ position prior to Sunday’s final time trial, although Aru likely try to make up the 49 seconds he needs to bump Rodriguez out of fourth.