Juan Jose Cobo (Geox-TMC) climbed to the overall lead in the Vuelta a España on Sunday, conquering the decisive Angliru stage and leaving red jersey Bradley Wiggins (Sky) struggling on the steeps.
“This is the biggest win of my life, without a doubt,” said Cobo after shelling Wiggins, second-placed Chris Froome and Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) on the monstrous ascent and racing alone through a tunnel of spectators to the victory. “I knew I had to attack to have any chance. That’s what I did yesterday and I felt even better today. I decided to just go for it and see what would happen. I didn’t know how the others were feeling, but I felt good. I could not have imagined that it would turn out like this.”
Wiggins, who could manage only fifth on the day and sank to third on GC, said he had expected to lose the jersey.
“I’m not really disappointed. I didn’t expect to go so well,” he said. “In the downhill before the Angliru, I had a mechanical. I was dropped but not for long. I came back on but I had already put myself in the red before the last and decisive climb where Cobo was by far the strongest.
“With 5km to go, when Cobo was away, we set a tempo to keep him in sight and limit the losses. But in the steeper sections, it was difficult to go hard.”
From Avilés to Angliru
The 142.2km race from Avilés to the Alto de L’Angliru was the shortest used on a stage finishing atop the brutal climb. The stage began at an altitude of just 50 meters and ended at 1557 meters — and most of the climbing came over the last 12.5km.
There were two rated climbs on the way to the base of the Angliru, starting with the Category 2 Alto de Tenebredo, a 3.5km climb that began at 75.6km and summited at 79.1. At 115.6km, riders hit the base of the Category 1 Alto del Cordal, a 5.3km climb that averaged 9.6 percent and summited at 120.9km. From there, a steep 8.5km descent dropped riders at the base of the Angliru, a 12.2km climb that averaged 10.2 percent — but with sections as steep as 23.5 percent — and topped out at the finish.
In 2002, rain made the stage doubly difficult. Riders were even slipping on the paint used for fans’ messages along the way. The most famous victim of the stage was David Millar, who crashed three times before reaching the final climb. He made it, but stopped one meter short of the line and handed his race number to officials. They ruled that he had not finished, and listed Millar as a “DNF.” He later apologized to his team, but remains a critic of the inclusion of climbs akin to the Angliru.
Chanavel on the march
The ever-aggressive Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) tried several times to forge another escape, but it was Andrew Talansky (Garmin), Dimitri Champion (Ag2r) and Simon Geschke (Skil-Shimano) who finally got away. They took more than six minutes by the 52km mark.
A big pileup with 38km to go saw several Lampres and RadioShacks hit the deck. A few kilometers further along the chase had closed to within two minutes of the escapees and the gap was coming down fast with Vacansoleil at the sharp end of the chase, augmented by a lone Euskaltel.
Talansky and Champion soon were back in the bunch as they reached the base of the Alto del Cordal, but Gesche soldiered on alone for a while.
Mathias Frank (BMC Racing Team) had a dig on the Cordal before Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC) and Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) lit it up. Garmin-Cervélo’s Daniel Martin and the irrepressible mountains leader David Moncoutie (Cofidis) joined them and the latter led the break over the top, 22 seconds ahead of the peloton.
Liquigas drilled it on the difficult, sketchy descent as Bruseghin briefly took a lead over his mates going onto the lower slopes of the Angliru. Peter Sagan dragged the bunch up to him with 12km to go.
Onto the Angliru
Only a couple dozen riders remained in the lead group — defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) had two teammates, and Wiggins had Froome.
Sastre had another go with 11km remaining, quickly taking a 10-second lead. A kilometer later Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) took off — it seemed likely that the two weren’t out to win the stage, but rather to be ready to help Cobo and Bauke Mollema, respectively.
Nine kilometers from the line Sastre had 11 seconds on Barredo, who wasn’t making much headway. Behind, Moncoutie drifted off the back, having secured his blue polka-dot jersey for another day.
Then Igor Anton (Euskaltel) launched, quickly driving up to Sastre and then leaving him behind as he climbed through the throngs of shrieking, flag-waving fans mobbing the Angliru. Daniel Martin (Cervélo) shot away next, then Cobo, and the Geox man soon was putting time on Froome and Wiggins.
Cobo overhauled Anton, then dropped him, as Froome paced Wiggins up the 21 percent grade. Nibali went straight out the back again.
The Froome-Wiggins group likewise dispatched Anton and went after Cobo, who had forged a 13-second advantage with 5km to go. Anton and Martin were losing ground, and Nibali was nearly a half-minute behind.
The GC group was down to Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC), Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Wiggins and Froome, and they were losing ground — with 4km to go Cobo had 30 seconds on them.
Rodriguez couldn’t stick it and went backward.
With 3km to race Wiggins was in danger of losing his red jersey as Cobo drove toward the 20-second time bonus for the stage winner. The crowds were insane on the steepest bits, packing the narrow road from edge to edge, leaving only a narrow lane for the struggling riders to navigate. At least two motorbikes hit the deck on the hill, one of them a camera moto; television viewers lost their look at the GC group as the sole surviving camera followed Cobo.
But not before they saw Wiggins begin to struggle — and as Cobo kept extending his lead, the race leader fell out of the chase, now down to Froome, Poels and Menchov.
“I’ve got no regret. Bradley and I went as hard as I could but Cobo was unstoppable,” said Froome. “It’s a pity that only because of the time bonus, we’re not leading anymore, but there’s still a week to go and we haven’t said our last word yet.”
Going into the final kilometer Cobo was all alone, save for the hordes of screaming spectators. He shot over the top with more than a minute’s advantage over the chase, then zipped up the jersey on the short descent to the line with a huge grin on his face as he took the win.
Poels was next to finish at 48 seconds back with Menchov third, shutting the Sky riders out of the time bonuses. Froome finished fourth in the same time as the lead trio, but Wiggins crossed 1:20 down, and Cobo relieved him of the leader’s jersey. Froome remained second overall at 20 seconds, while Wiggins slipped to third at 0:46.
“As expected, I lost the jersey but Chris and I, we’re on the podium, so obviously it’s not game over,” said Wiggins. “The overall win is not out of question. It’s gonna be difficult because it’s pretty clear who’s the strongest, and now we can’t blame what we did at the team time trial in Benidorm because Geox was even behind us.”
No longer. Cobo is out in front now, and he intends to stay there.
“A few months ago, I didn’t even want to ride my bike, now I am leading the Vuelta,” said Cobo. “There are still five stages to control, but I have confidence in my team.”
Sporting director Matxin Fernandez likewise was delighted and confident in his rider.
“After all we’ve been through as a team this season, we deserve this and so does Cobo. The road always puts things in their place and we could not be happier than the outcome today.
“We knew this was the day to try to win the Vuelta. We have a small margin, but we have a strong bloc of riders who will kill themselves to conserve this jersey. We hope to carry it all the way to Madrid.”
Stay tuned for an expanded report from European correspondent Andrew Hood, photos from Graham Watson and complete results.
- 1. Juan José Cobo, Geox-TMC , 4:01:56
- 2. Wouter Poels, Vacansoleil-DCM, at 0:48
- 3. Denis Menchov, Geox-TMC, same time
- 4. Christopher Froome, Team Sky, s.t.
- 5. Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky, at 1:21
- 1. Juan José Cobo, Geox-TMC , 59:57:16
- 2. Christopher Froome, Team Sky, at 0:20
- 3. Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky, at 0:46
- 4. Bauke Mollema, Rabobank Cycling Team, at 1:36
- 5. Maxime Monfort, Leopard-Trek, at 2:37