Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) took his third stage win to extend his lead over Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) to 22 seconds. The red jersey made a devastating late surge within the final kilometre of the Puerto de Ancares to sweep past Contador and take the win.
A long breakaway went away initially, before it was eventually whittled down to its strongest climbers. Ben Gastauer (AG2R La Mondiale), Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Serge Pauwels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Javier Moreno (Movistar), Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Nissan), Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE), Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) and Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) made up the shrunken group.
The gap fell quickly as Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff team set the pace in the peloton. It was evident that El Pistolero meant business, despite a quick stop for a wheel change. As the race entered its last 10km and hit the final climb, it was Losada who offered the last resistance, while riders were put into difficulty back in the bunch. Rabobank’s Robert Gesink was one such rider who cracked under the Saxo Bank pressure.
With the Danish outfit grinding down Losada’s advantage to nothing, it was something of a phony war behind, with none of the favourites willing to make a move. That was until 3.3km to the finish, when Contador finally fired out of the bunch. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) stayed firmly locked on to his wheel, whilst Daniel Moreno (Katusha) did well to aid race leader and teammate Joaquim Rodriguez across to his compatriots.
Valverde took it upon himself to do the lion’s share of pace making, while Chris Froome (Sky) struggled in the group behind. Contador attacked again in his inimitable style with 2½km to go, but couldn’t shake his fellow escapees, trying again half a kilometre later.
It was a move which did damage, opening up a gap of five seconds almost immediately. But the three Spaniards behind stayed calm, with Moreno continuing to set the pace for his leader. Marshaled by teammate Rigoberto Uran, Froome clawed his way back to the Rodriguez trio, before attacking himself.
Unsurprisingly he wasn’t allowed to escape, and the real concern for the group of four was the 11-second gap Contador held with a kilometre remaining. Seconds later, Rodriguez made the decisive move. Sending Froome flying out of the back of the group, the race leader motored up to Contador before surging past for yet another win.
VeloVoices rider of the day
There’s only one rider on whom this award could be bestowed today: Joaquim Rodriguez. A rider who isn’t meant to cope on the longer climbs has so far done so emphatically. When Contador made his final attack it looked like a classic Pistolero move. But Rodriguez judged the situation perfectly, and is looking increasingly comfortable in the jersey of race leader.
It was nice to see David Moncoutie in the break today – he’s gunning for a record-equaling five Vuelta mountain classifications. After today he sits on nine points, 25 behind new leader and fellow escapee Simon Clarke. However, it’s far too early to write the quiet Frenchman off, with tough stages to come.
After today’s stage Alberto Contador is 22 seconds behind Rodriguez, with Froome and Valverde on exactly the same time, 1:41 in arrears. Barring a miracle performance, this race will now be fought out between the two Spaniards at the top of the general classification.
Tomorrow we will see the first highest category summit at the finish, with an equally tough finish to the following stage. There’s little doubt the next two stages will prove decisive, and don’t be surprised to see Saxo Bank working hard on the front once again in a bid to destroy the Katusha team on those climbs.
Rodriguez has an advantage in having Daniel Moreno alongside him – the only one of the three leading Spaniards to have such a strong teammate. Moreno himself is right up on GC in fifth place, and could prove the decisive factor.
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