Stage 17: Santander to Fuente Dé, 187.3km
What was meant to be a relatively easy day in the Vuelta a España turned out to be the potentially decisive stage, with Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) taking the stage win and leader’s jersey after an astonishing long breakaway. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) finished second on the stage and leapfrogged Joaquim Rodriguez in the GC, with the Katusha rider dropping to third.
In a spectacular demonstration of tactical genius, the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team sent men up the road on the second of the day’s three medium climbs, the Collado La Hoz. Here Contador made a break for freedom, alongside a select group of other strong riders. However, Valverde and Rodriguez were nowhere to be seen.
Contador’s teammate Sergio Paulinho was one of the riders who had been sent up the road anticipating a move from his leader. He did a great deal of pace-making once El Pistolero had caught up, and opened up a gap of 1½ minutes with 20km to go.
Contador and former teammate Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) attacked from the lead group shortly after, with the Spaniard accelerating away from his Italian companion after a few kilometres sitting in his slipstream.
With Rodriguez and Valverde over two minutes down, they both attacked. Valverde bridged over to his teammate Benat Intxausti, who was placed in the breakaway with Contador earlier in the day. Rodriguez, however, was out of steam, and with no teammates around him looked resigned to defeat.
Contador held on to take the finish first, with Valverde and Intxausti working magnificently to lose just six seconds to the new race leader. Poor Rodriguez arrived over 2½ minutes in arrears.
VeloVoices rider of the day
He may have retired in 2008, but today’s (former) rider of the day prize must go to Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s directeur sportif Bradley McGee. The Aussie masterminded the tactics behind today’s glorious victory, utilising a strategy reminiscent of Andy Schleck in the 2011 Tour de France. It was a bold move which could easily have gone wrong, but thanks to the evidently excellent shape in which Contador has kept himself over his six-month ban and a superbly executed tactic from the entire team, it paid massive dividends.
One of the most interesting of the day’s events occurred when Alberto Contador got into a two-man break at the head of the race, with Paolo Tiralongo. Contador and Tiralongo rode together at Astana in 2010, and the fascinating face-off between personal and team loyalties in cycling were demonstrated when Tiralongo sat on the front, quite deliberately pulling the Spaniard towards the red jersey. It was made even more obvious by Tiralongo even accepting a bidon from the Saxo Bank team car at one point. Contador had gifted a stage win to the Italian at the 2011 Giro. The accumulation of personal favours is an important but frequently overlooked part of cycling – and there’s no statute of limitations on when they might be called in.
What a turnaround! After today’s events Contador leads Valverde by 1:52, while Rodriguez is now 2:28 behind. It was a perfectly judged manoeuvre from Saxo Bank, but you can’t help but wonder whether Katusha could have done more to aid their ailing leader.
It was evident that Rodriguez wasn’t on top form, possibly suffering a dreaded jour sans – or it could simply be that he couldn’t live with his competitors on the flatter terrain. With hindsight it is obvious that today’s apparently benign final climb – 17.3km at 3.9% – was actually more of a threat than any of the alta montaña on the three monstrous days which preceded it. Shorter, steeper bursts are more suited to Rodriguez’s characteristics as a rider, but it is on longer, more gradual ascents where other climbers can gain the upper hand on him with a sustained effort.
Katusha must have known this was a possibility. For Rodriguez to be left without any teammates for so long was suicidal. Despite the undoubtedly excellent tactics utilised by Contador, the points classification jersey will be scant consolation with Purito having got through the time trial and biggest mountains ahead of his rivals.
It was Katusha’s to lose, and they have.
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