Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) fought his way through the crowds and mist to victory atop the Alto de L’Angliru in the Vuelta a España on Saturday.
But the big winner on the race was race leader Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), who beat back a series of challenges from runner-up Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on the final steeps of the brutal ascent.
As Elissonde rode alone toward the stage win, bursting into tears at the line, Horner fought back time and again as Nibali kept jumping, jumping, jumping, desperate to snatch the red jersey from his rival.
And when the Italian finally ran out of snap, the American simply rode away from him, taking second on the stage at 26 seconds and padding his overall lead to 37 seconds with just one stage remaining.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) took third at 54 seconds and sits third overall at 1:36.
Nibali crossed fourth on the day in the same time as Valverde.
“I didn’t have great legs,” said Elissonde. “Angliru, it’s mythic … it’s one of the hardest climbs in the mountains. To win there, it’s the happiest day of my life.”
As for the race leader, he was already contemplating his own victory, on Sunday, in Madrid.
“I don’t need time for it to sink in. I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I’ve done,” said Horner.
“I knew how hard it was going to be. It will be something that will last a lifetime. To win here against these champions is unbelievable. Nibali, Valverde, [Joaquim] Rodriguez — to have those guys around me for this victory is fantastic.”
Nibali, meanwhile, said he gave it his all and praised Horner for withstanding the pressure.
“I tried to attack whenever it was possible,” Nibali said. “I am happy with the tour that I have had and we need to bear in mind that Horner has been a solid and strong leader.
“We had tactics for today but they didn’t develop as we hoped. Everyone was waiting on every move that we made.”
Up, up, up — and away
The 142.2km stage from Avilés to Alto de L’Angliru served up a progressively nasty trio of rated ascents before proceeding to the main course.
First on the menu was the category-3 Alto de la Cabruñana at 40.3km, a 5.2km climb with an average grade of 6.6 percent. Thirty kilometers later came the cat.-2 Alto de Tenebredo, a 3.4km climb with an average grade of more than 10 percent. The final appetizer was the cat.-1 Alto del Cordal, with 26.1k remaining — the 5.3km ascent had an average grade of 9.6 percent, maxing out at 12.14 percent.
Last and definitely not least was the beyond-category Alto de L’Angliru. Starting just over 12km from the finish, it boasts an average grade of 10.2 percent, with a stunning bit of 23.5 percent about two-thirds of the way up. And it was wall to wall with screaming, flag-waving spectators.
A huge early break of nearly 30 riders took a lead of nearly two minutes on the peloton. David Arroyo (Caja Rural) was best-placed overall, sitting 14th at 15:55.
He eventually got away from that big group, along with teammate Antonio Piedra , Vasil Kiryienka (Sky), Andriy Grivko (Astana) and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis)
At the 75km mark the leaders had 40 seconds on their erstwhile mates and more than six minutes on the bunch.
But 25km further on down the road the two groups had reformed, and they led the bunch by more than five and a half minutes. Euskaltel-Euskadi led the chase, with RadioShack-Leopard just behind.
Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) had a go out of the break, followed by Elissonde, and the two went over the Alto del Cordal with five minutes’ advantage on the GC group.
Tiralongo was clearly the better descender of the two, but Elissonde was still with him at the lower slopes of the Angliru, and then the two settled down to trading pace until Elissonde gave it some stick and powered away.
Behind, the Angliru slowly whittled away at the GC group containing Horner, Nibali, Valverde, Rodriguez and Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff).
Nibali attacked Horner relentlessly, and at one point had two teammates to the American’s none. But he gave too much too soon, and faded on the final steeps, watching as the race leader inched away from him into the mist.
Valverde, who clings to third overall, declared himself “content” with the way his Vuelta has turned out.
“I have to be content,” he said. “Another podium in the Vuelta. I got the points jersey. The constancy paid off over three weeks.”
Monday’s stage, a 109.6km leg from Leganés to Madrid with no rated climbs, should be a formality, a day for the remaining sprinters.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Spain.