Thousands of delirious, orange-clad Basque fans had a front-row seat to the Vuelta’s last showdown. Froome attacked twice on the second passage over the short climb, but couldn’t shake the stubborn Cobo.
Cobo responded to each of Froome’s sorties and the Geox-TMC rider rode across the finish line just behind Froome in 17th place to defend his slender, 13-second grip on red.
“It’s another step forward, but it was a very big one,” a relieved Cobo said after the stage. “We knew they were going to attack. The objective from the start was to defend the jersey and avoid the sprints. I felt good throughout the stage and I could respond. The break was going to take the bonuses, so it turned out just perfect.”
Two days earlier, Cobo looked vulnerable on Wednesday’s summit at Peña Cabarga when Froome almost cracked him.
The scenario was very different in Friday’s hilly, five-climb 19th stage that brought the Vuelta back to Spain’s Basque Country for the first time in 33 years.
The final climb was 15km from the finish line in downtown Bilbao and breakaway riders scooped up the day’s finish-line bonuses, meaning that Cobo just had to stay glued to Froome’s wheel.
That’s easier said than done, but Cobo fended off the challenge and pulls two days closer to overall victory.
Team Sky delivered on its end of the bargain and rode hard over the first passage to set off the alarms that the real battle was still to come.
Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins set a strong tempo on the second passage and Froome catapulted clear with about one kilometer to go on the climb. Cobo responded to the first surge and Froome tried again in vain.
Cobo, Froome and Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) cleared the summit with a small gap to the GC group, but it came back together on the long run to the line in Bilbao.
Froome said Cobo was too strong to shake.
“I gave it everything. I have no regrets. I threw everything at him and he followed us every time,” Froome told VeloNews. “The team did a fantastic job. Brad lined me up perfectly. We did everything textbook style today, but so did Cobo. There are no cracks in his system.”
After nearly three weeks of racing, Froome looked like he didn’t have the same spark as he did on Peña Cabarga when he made a daring run for overall victory.
Extremely warm temperatures and high humidity also took their toll as Sky didn’t have the legs to truly put Cobo under pressure.
Sky went hard the first climb, but seemed to run out of gas on the second passage.
“I didn’t really understand Sky’s tactics there,” said Garmin-Cervélo’s Daniel Martin “They blew it to pieces on the first time up the climb and we thought it would be chaos on the second time. Everyone was so dead on the final climb. We went a lot slower on the second time than we did on the first time.”
Saturday’s 185km 20th stage will be Froome’s last chance and Cobo’s last hurdle.
The route features four hard climbs from Bilbao to Vitoria, with the Cat. 1 Urkolia climb as the 2011 Vuelta’s last major summit. It tops out nearly 50km from the finish line, however, meaning Cobo should be able to count on his Geox-TMC teammates to help him fend off any final-hour aggression.
“We’ll see how the stage unfolds tomorrow,” Cobo said. “We can expect that Sky will keep fighting and they’ll keep attacking us. The most direct rival is Froome, but you can never let down your guard.”