Stage 16: Gijón to Valgrande-Pajares. Cuitu Negru, 183.5km
Another brutal day, another breakaway and another worthy winner: Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). He edged away from breakaway companion Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) on the final searing climb where they were both gasping like fish out of water and weaving in slow motion up the torturous narrow ramps of the Cuitu Negru.
The duo had gotten away after about 50km. Like yesterday, they managed to build a sufficiently large gap to ensure they would contest the stage victory. It was only in the last 2km that Italian national time trial champion Cataldo was able to drop and hold off De Gendt to take the biggest – and slowest, and probably most painful – win of his career.
When he finally recovered his breath and composure, the stage winner said:
I am really super happy. I won the queen stage. It was a long break with a great rider as De Gendt. I am improving day by day, and really looking forward to the next stages and — why not — to really try and do something good at the Tour of Lombardy.
I would also like to be a part of the Italian National Team in Valkenburg [for the World Championships – Ed]. It’s a dream, but I will work for it and hope my effort will be repaid.
Further down the slope, the real race of the day was unfolding. It was another tale of derring-do featuring the three musketeers: Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Contador put his Saxo Bank teammates to work before the final climb with Euskaltel-Euskadi lending a helping hand. But the real damage was inflicted on the final hors catégorie climb with the leaders’ group down to around 30 riders and fourth-placed Chris Froome (Sky) drifting off the back. With 7km to go, Saxo’s Sergio Paulinho swung off – job done – and Jesus Hernandez took over. Contador stuck to Hernandez’s wheel and, in turn, Rodriguez, Valverde and Quintana lined up behind.
Then Contador took control and shed the Movistarlets, but not Rodriguez. Quintana paced Valverde back to the two leaders. With 5km to go, Valverde attacked only to be pulled back. Quintana went again – he was overhauled by Contador, with Purito glued to his wheel. And so it continued, with Valverde pulling himself back up each time to the leading two who would dance away as soon as he was within spitting distance. It was a magnificent joust, with attacks being parried time and time again. Finally, with 500 metres to go Contador attacked again, Rodriguez caught him and sashayed away to collect third place and the final time bonus to extend his advantage to 28 seconds.
VeloVoices rider of the day
It’s just got to be Alberto Contador. For the last three days he’s taken the race by the scruff of the neck and tried every which way he can to dislodge Joaquim Rodriguez. He promised he wasn’t going to give up trying, and he hasn’t. Goodness knows how many times he’s attacked on those final climbs only to see Purito slip past in the final few metres. But he’s not lost heart and, in the process, we’ve been treated to a visual feast, a marvellous spectacle which we’ll be talking about long after the final podium in Madrid.
This year’s race is going to go down in the Vuelta annals as a Classic. In years to come, we’ll be saying “remember when …” Of course, it’s not over until the fat lady sings and there’s still Saturday’s stage which finishes at Bola del Mundo to navigate where, rest assured, Alberto will have yet another, and another, and indeed another go or two.
This is what he had to say after today’s stage:
Independently from the result and the fact that Joaquim is very strong, I’m happy with my attitude. Today I’ve had better legs. As a team we’ve made the race hard. We’ve heated up the race and made it exciting.
Indeed you have, Alberto!
If you don’t ride, you might not appreciate how difficult it is to ride up a slope of 25% after three long, hard days in the saddle. Scratch the three hard, long days and it’s still damn difficult. This has been a brutal Vuelta.
There are still five stages to navigate but you sense that the podium is crystallising and it’s an all-Spanish affair. Joaquim Rodriguez has a grip on all the jerseys bar the King of the Mountains, and that slipped from his grasp when Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) nipped off with teammate Peter Weening for company today to collect a couple of valuable points.
There may still be some further movement in the top ten. Today Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) swapped tenth for ninth spot with Nico Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) and Movistar took over as top team. The boys now have a well-earned rest day followed by two sprint stages and one for the baroudeurs before Saturday’s final summit finish.
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