LEON, Spain (VN) — More than two weeks of racing and an almost cruel string of climbing stages is wearing down everyone at the 2012 Vuelta a España, even Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank).
On a day when Chris Froome (Sky) slid backwards yet again to slip ever further away from victory — or even the final podium — Contador tried in vain to crack race leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) with innumerable attacks.
The 18-percent ramps of the Lagos de Covadonga climb at the end of the hard-fought 15th stage saw the “fantastic four” reduced to the “Spanish trio” as Froome lost more ground and all but unfurled the white flag.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was the day’s big winner, attacking with the help of teammate Nairo Quintana to put Froome on the back foot for good. With unsung hero Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural) winning out of a breakaway, Valverde, Contador and Rodríguez led the GC contenders across the line 35 seconds faster than Froome.
“I am not sure where I am going to end up,” Froome said at the line when asked about his GC hopes. “I will continue to give my maximum and I will be happy with that.”
Froome’s “maximum” is clearly not enough for him to stay close to the Spanish attackers. The Team Sky rider, who rode brilliantly to second at the Tour de France this year and the Vuelta last year, couldn’t answer when Contador accelerated halfway up the 12.9km Covadonga climb.
It seemed Contador was first content to finally shed the still-dangerous Froome once and for all, with Movistar gladly piling it on. The team is still steaming over Sky’s tactics in stage 4 when Valverde hit the deck as the echelons formed and lost 55 seconds.
Contador’s more serious problem is the ever-confident Rodríguez, who once again rode smartly and did not panic against Contador’s endless string of “mini-attacks.” Contador would surge; Rodríguez would patiently claw his way back. Contador would jab again, and Purito would meticulously smother the aggression again.
Contador, who couldn’t hide his frustration at the finish line, said he wasn’t feeling his best despite attacking at least a half-dozen times up the narrow, twisting climb to the spectacular Lagos de Covadonga national park in Spain’s Picos de Europa.
“I didn’t feel great today. I preferred to save something for the final climb,” Contador said. “Purito is climbing better than he ever has before and perhaps I am a little bit off my top form. I am going to keep fighting.”
When the dust settled, Rodríguez had put one more decisive climbing summit in his rearview mirror with his narrow, but steady 22-second lead to Contador still intact. Valverde climbed alone into third at 1:41 back, breaking the deadlock with Froome, who dropped to fourth at 2:16.
Throwing down on Covadonga
Sunday’s 15th stage from La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga was a stage with two races.
The day’s winning breakaway went clear over the Puerto de Pajares, the same hill the peloton will climb in the opposite direction in Monday’s “queen stage,” and never looked back.
A group of 10 hit the Covadonga climb with a 12-minute head start on the chasing peloton and Piedra attacked early out of the group to take a huge win for his little Caja Rural team.
The other “race” was the ever-tightening fight for the red leader’s jersey. Contador is attacking as promised and putting everyone — except the stubborn Rodríguez — into the red zone.
When Froome crossed the line, the Kenya-born rider admitted the pace was putting him into the red, but the wrong sort.
“Maybe my face is red,” he said, when asked about the red leader’s jersey. “It was a really tough climb today. Contador’s attacks were expected. I was really suffering.”
Team Sky was setting a strong pace on the lower flanks of the 12.9km climb, perhaps to try to take the initiative against what was the inevitable, when Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, after riding in the shadows during most of the stage, suddenly dropped the hammer on ramps of 12 percent at the base of the climb.
Half the peloton was quickly spit out of the back, and Froome was on the ropes. But just as quickly Saxo-Tinkoff eased off and allowed many of the top GC favorites to claw back on.
Saxo Bank seemed to change its tactics, in part because Contador said he wasn’t on top form, and improvised, sending Dani Navarro up the road, ensuring that the pace would remain high. Movistar countered with Quintana and Euskaltel-Euskadi also sent Igor Antón on the march. Contador followed with a few more jabs, but couldn’t shake Rodríguez.
It wasn’t just a race about the leader’s jersey. Valverde was still battling for a spot on the final podium and punched the accelerator with 4km to go. Quickly following the wheel were Contador and Rodríguez. The “fantastic four” soon became the “Spanish tres.”
Froome couldn’t react; he was pedaling squares. The action was relentless. Contador surged again, but Rodríguez was right on his wheel like a magnet. Valverde countered and latched back on.
Contador went yet again, and this time Rodríguez faltered. Contador threw down yet again, riding on the vapors of the TV motorbikes, little jabs that were putting the hurt on Rodríguez. Then Quintana and Valverde sped right past the dueling pair. This Vuelta was like a popcorn maker.
All four were weaving through the crowds, standing out of the saddle on the 10-12 percent grades. Froome refused to throw in the towel, but was ceding yet more terrain, trying to limit the bleeding at a half-minute back. Contador went yet again, each surge putting Rodríguez on edge, but Purito patiently reeled him in.
Contador admits that he wasn’t at his best today while Rodríguez is looking rock solid.
“Maybe I am missing that little edge,” he said. “But I am not angry. Far from it. I am enjoying the battle, racing here in front of this public, fighting to the end. I am more motivated than ever. I will keep fighting all the way to Madrid. Maybe I will not win this Vuelta, but I will fight to the final meter.”
‘Human butcher shop’ looming for Monday
If this Vuelta hasn’t been hard enough, Monday’s brutally tough “queen stage” adds yet another layer of pain.
Pedro Delgado, the popular ex-pro who announced the Vuelta on Spanish TV, called the 183.5km, four-climb stage from Gijon to Cuitu Negru a “human butcher shop.”
After an early third-category climb that will surely see the day’s main breakaway already clear by then, two wickedly steep Cat. 1 climbs will soften up the legs for what lies in wait at the finish line.
The Puerto de San Lorenzo at 101km and the Alto de la Cobertoria at 141km both feature ramps steeper than 15 percent and have average grades of 8.5 percent each, up 10km and 8km, respectively. The descents are equally harrowing, especially off the Cobertoria. Thankfully, forecasters are calling for continued clear and dry skies for Monday’s battle.
The final climb up the Cat. 1 Puerto de Pajares doesn’t sound like much on paper, at 19.4km with an average grade of 6.9 percent. Pajares “steps” up a spectacular Asturian valley, with the upper reaches of the climb hitting grades of 10-12 percent range.
It’s the final twist of the knife that should see the race blow apart — and set more than a few to wondering out loud just how far races need to go to provide the spectacle.
Vuelta organizers have taken the route to the base of a local ski area and then straight up one of the service roads, which also serves as a ski run during the winter. The road surface was paved with a thin layer of asphalt less than two months ago. The final 3km are mountain-bike steep, with ramps as steep as 22 percent.
With the GC still knotted up, it’s unlikely a breakaway will stay clear with finish-line bonuses still in play. Contador will need to drop Rodríguez to win the stage and claim time bonuses if he hopes to carry the red jersey into the final week.
If Rodríguez can manage to hang on and perhaps even extend his lead, the Vuelta could all be ever closer.
Wednesday’s climbing stage into Fuente De should not present a major problem for the top GC riders on form. And Saturday’s penultimate stage up Bola del Mundo is also so steep that it only punishes riders who cannot hold the top speed. The climbs are so steep, it’s almost impossible to accelerate.
There’s also a fight at the bottom half of the top-10 and there should be some more reshuffling in the lower parts of the GC battle.
Dani Moreno (Katusha) has moved solidly into fourth at 4:51 back while Robert Gesink (Rabobank) slipped back Saturday to sixth at 5:42 back.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) moved up to seventh at 6:48 , looking rock solid in the lead chase group behind the Valverde-Contador-Rodríguez threesome.
“I’m feeling good. These longer climbs are better for me than some of those shorter, explosive climbs we’ve seen,” Talansky said at the start in La Robla. “I am taking it day by day. It’s about staying concentrated and getting through each stage.”
Less than a minute separates Talansky from 10th-place Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) at 7:39 back, with Laurens Ten Dams (Rabobank) and Nicholas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) each trying to hang on to a spot in the top 10.
With so much at stake Monday, it’s hard to imagine the GC remaining still so knotted up by the end of Sunday’s stage. Whoever carries the red jersey into Tuesday’s rest day could take it all the way to Madrid.
Anyone near the top of the leaderboard who has great legs Monday could still ride away with the Vuelta.