Things looked like they were on cruise control for Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in Saturday’s 14th stage at the Vuelta a España until 10kms to go.
The Basque climber was confidently riding in the red leader’s jersey, protected by his band of brothers in their distinctive orange Euskaltel jerseys and poised for a strong defense of the Vuelta lead up the steep road to Peña Cabarga in conditions ideal for his attacking style.
His GC hopes came crashing down in a dangerous, high-speed pileup about 10km from the finish as the pack hit speeds of 80kph en route toward the base of the short, but very steep summit.
Antón fell hard, leaving his jersey — and victory hopes — shredded on the asphalt of Cantabria. Antón likely broke his elbow and his absence allowed Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) to slip into the overall leader’s jersey with one week to go in the Vuelta.
“I crashed alone. I’ve thought I hit a hole or an obstacle. My hands went off the handlebar,” Antón recounted. “I stood up and saw blood all over the place. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. Instinctively, I tried to get back on the bike and realized my right elbow couldn’t bend. Our team doctor came over, he touched my arm and said, ‘Forget about it, it’s broken.’”
‘Purito’ smokes it to line
Just like that, the 2010 Vuelta turned upside down. Gone was Antón, who looked like he had the victory in his legs, and suddenly the leader’s jersey was ripe for the taking.
Liquigas boldly stepped into the vacuum. Nibali started the stage just 45 seconds in arrears and became the virtual leader with Antón licking his wounds. Teammate Roman Kreuziger did journeyman work to trim the peloton to 10 elite GC contenders.
Early attackers David Millar (Garmin-Transitions) and Nicki Terpstra (Milram) were neutralized on the final kilometers as the big guns began firing.
With 2km to go, Nibali was joined by Xavier Tondo (Cervélo), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Nicholas Roche (Ag2r), Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), David García and Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) and the surprising Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia).
Nibali punched the accelerator with 1.4km to go, but Rodríguez countered with 1.4km to go. Nicknamed “Purito,” Rodríguez kept pouring it on and left Nibali fighting for his life — and the red leader’s jersey hanging by a thread.
It was a painful victory, and in more ways than one. Rodríguez had a hand over one eye as he crossed the line after having been stung by a wasp during the stage. He won “one-eyed” — and clawed his way into second at four seconds back.
“It’s too bad for Igor. He had everything under control and he looked like he had the race under control,” Rodríguez said after claiming victory. “I raced today more intelligently than I did in Andorra when I lost the leader’s jersey. I was too confident that day and burned myself up. Today I was more patient and waited for the appropriate moment.”
Nibali takes over – for now
Nibali crossed the line second at 20 seconds back, having just enough in the tank to take the leader’s jersey, his second grand tour leader’s tunic of the year after having the maglia rosa earlier this year at the Giro d’Italia.
Nicknamed the “Shark of Messina,” the Sicilian is the big “foreign” threat for the Spanish GC riders. With his superior time trialing skills, it is now Nibali who takes the driver’s seat going into two punishing mountain stages in Asturias.
“It’s a shame about Igor. He looked very strong and he might have won this Vuelta,” Nibali said. “It’s not good to take the jersey like this, but sometimes that’s how cycling is. I lost the pink jersey at the Giro this year after a crash. Kreuziger was a huge help and I concentrated on taking the jersey. We have a strong enough team to control the race. We’ll see what happens in the next few days.”
Stacked up behind Nibali are Rodríguez at four seconds and Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) and Tondo, tied at 50 seconds back. Further back are Roche at 2:11, Schleck at 2:12 and Velits at 2:29. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) slipped into the top 10 and sits eighth overall at 3:29 back.
Danielson got caught up behind the Antón crash and fought to regain contact on the steep Cabarga climb with ramps as steep as 20 percent. Danielson crossed the line 10th at 1:29 back and moved into eighth.
“I almost went down super-hard, I had to put a foot down. The peloton split and unfortunately my two teammates were ahead. Matt Wilson dropped back and got me closer to the front, Christian (Vande Velde) helped bring me up,” Danielson told VeloNews. “I felt great, those guys were just flying.”
Schleck still believes he had a chance to win the Vuelta. Sixth overall at just over two minutes back, the Tour de Suisse champion is coming off a broken collarbone suffered during the third stage at the Tour de France.
“Everything is still possible at the Vuelta, why not victory?” Schleck said. “There are two very hard stages. Anything can happen. My legs are getting better every day. Let’s wait.”
With Lagos de Covadonga on tap Sunday, one of the emblematic climbs of the Vuelta, things are sure to stay interesting all the way to Madrid.
Stage 14 results
- 1. Joaquin Rodriguez, Team Katusha, 4:26:43
- 2. Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas-Doimo, at 0:20
- 3. Ezequiel Mosquera, Xacobeo Galicia, at 0:22
- 4. David Moncoutie, Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne, at 0:33
- 5. Nicholas Roche, Ag2r La Mondiale, at 0:34