Alberto Contador scored a brilliant win on Wednesday at Fuente Dé, storming alone to the stage 17 victory and into the overall leader’s jersey in the Vuelta a España.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was second, ahead of Sergio Henao (Sky), while red jersey Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) lost enough time to see his overall lead — and second place — roll away on the race’s penultimate summit finish. Valverde is now second, at 1:52, with four days of racing remaining. Rodríguez is third, 2:28 in arrears.
“A lot of people thought it was crazy to attack from so far away, but I’m not on my best form, so I knew I had to try,” said Contador. “I’m not really happy finishing second; it’s not the way I race.”
The victory is Contador’s first since returning last month from his controversial doping ban, which stemmed from a positive test for trace amounts of clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France.
“I want to dedicate this win to all those that have believed in me — my father, my family, my friends, even those not at this race,” he said.
Rodríguez had entertained great hopes of making up for his heartbreak in this year’s Giro d’Italia, where he led going into the final stage only to finish second overall after Ryder Hesjedal overhauled his advantage in the Milan time trial.
“It is a sad day because I have probably lost the Vuelta. It was a very tough stage,” said Rodríguez. “When I saw him coming up on me, I thought, ‘this guy wants to break me before the summit’. I had no idea of the disaster he was preparing.”
With 50km to go in the stage, Contador began to push forward while on a second category climb to Collado de la Hoz, trying to catch up with an 11-man breakaway group while leaving Rodríguez and Valverde in the peloton.
Once in the leading group, Contador had the help of teammate Sergio Paulinho and Astana’s Paolo Tiralongo, who helped him open the
gap with the chasing peloton. It was Tiralongo, a former teammate, to whom Contador gifted stage 19 at the 2011 Giro. Contador attacked the group before the final climb and only Tiralongo followed. Eventually, the Spaniard was on his own.
Some 15km from the finish, Contador already had a lead of more than two minutes over Rodríguez.
On the final climb, Valverde attacked, leaving behind Rodríguez and his shattered Vuelta dream.
In the final three kilometers, five riders, including Valverde and Henao, picked up the pace to try to rein in Contador. But the 2008 Vuelta champion held them off and now has a lead that will make him tough to dislodge.
On Thursday the riders face a 204.5km, mostly flat stage 18 from Aguilar de Campoo to Valladolid.