Vuelta stage 20: Elissonde wins atop the Angliru as Horner wraps up red

Stage 20: Aviles to Alto de L’Angliru, 142.2km

France continued their prolific Vuelta with another stage win, as FDJ’s youngster Kenny Elissonde emerged from the Angliru mist in tears to take his first grand tour victory – and on the queen stage. However, the major events unfolded behind, with RadioShack’s Chris Horner leaving the brave Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in his wake to extend his GC lead ahead of tomorrow’s procession into Madrid.

Stage 20 profile

Stage 20 profile

The day’s breakaway was a big one, with 32 riders eventually managing to escape. That thinned as the stage wore on, and had reduced quite dramatically when the riders started the category 1 Alto del Cordal with around 25km remaining. It was on that climb that Astana’s Paolo Tiralongo attacked from the break, followed by Kenny Elissonde. The favourites were bunched together at the front of an ever-decreasing peloton, and by the time the agonising Angliru had started with 13km to go, the two leaders had a gap of five minutes.

It took around 7km of tough climbing towards the summit finish before Vincenzo Nibali made the first move in the favourites group, looking to make up the six seconds he lost to Chris Horner on yesterday’s stage and reclaim the red jersey. He opened up a gap of around 10 seconds on the other favourites, with his teammates Jakob Fuglsang and Tiralongo called back to offer support. Elissonde was left alone out front.

Nibali was ahead of the other favourites for just a kilometre before Horner bridged the gap, with Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in tow. The Italian kicked again straight after being caught, though this time Horner and Rodriguez wouldn’t budge. The pace in the small favourites group dropped as Tiralongo and Fuglsang rode on the front for their leader, though hostilities were only suspended until the domestique duo cracked with 3km remaining.

Nibali attacked again and again and again, though not enough to shake the stubborn Horner. Meanwhile, out front, Elissonde battled his way through the manic crowds, as the Spanish guardia civil battled hard to keep them under control. The lone leader rode high into the ever-thickening mist, lit only by motorbike headlights and rocking from side to side over his frame.

The chaos was even more evident the higher Nibali and Horner climbed, now ahead of the rest of the favourites. Sadly, Nibali began to pay for his efforts in the closing kilometres, and the red jersey began to open up a gap. He came across the line 26 seconds behind winner Elissonde, who burst into tears and smacked his helmet in disbelief as he took the biggest victory of his career. In contrast, Nibali limped through almost half-a-minute down on Horner, having now definitively ceded the red jersey to his American adversary.

VeloVoices rider of the day

Kenny Elissonde leads Paolo Tiralongo (Image: La Vuelta)

Kenny Elissonde leads Paolo Tiralongo (Image: La Vuelta)

Every rider who finished today’s stage is a worthy winner of this award, and separating the highest-placed riders is even more difficult. However, I’m going to give the award to stage winner Kenny Elissonde, who has helped make this race even more special for the French riders. The disappointment of the Tour de France has completely faded in the face of the remarkable achievements of the new French climbing generation, and Elissonde in tears as he crossed the misty finish line will be one of the abiding memories from this year’s Vuelta.

Analysis & opinion

So strong was Chris Horner on today’s stage that I’m not sure Vincenzo Nibali could’ve ever beaten him. However, that doesn’t mean that Astana couldn’t have gotten something more from this stage, and there’ll be more than a few glum faces on the transition to tomorrow’s start location after some bemusing strategic decisions.

In theory, the strategy of sending teammates up the road so they can help set Nibali’s pace when he attacked was a sound one – see Andy Schleck’s win with the aid of Maxime Monfort on stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France. However, Astana didn’t execute it perfectly, and looked trapped in two minds – whether to chase the stage win and gamble on Nibali going solo, or whether to have Tiralongo and Fuglsang hang back and retreat when Nibali made his move.

If they were executing the latter strategy, then Tiralongo’s attack with Elissonde made no sense – it wasted valuable energy that could’ve been spent on Nibali, and meant Nibbles had to wait longer for him to drop back, so much so that by the time the two came together, Nibali had already been caught. If they were executing the former, then withdrawing Tiralongo from such a strong position out front was nonsensical too. The result is that they have come away with no stage win and no red jersey, though as I say, it’s far from certain that Nibali would have been able to do anything more, even with greater support from his teammates. Horner was just too good.

On a final side note, Euskaltel-Euskadi did some serious riding today to ensure they retained the team classification in their final home grand tour in their current guise. They successfully held off Movistar’s charge by just over a minute, in a deserved award for an iconic team.

Stage 20 result

1. Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) 3:55:36

2. Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) +0:26

3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +0:54

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) same time

5. Andre Cardoso (Caja-Rural) s/t

General classification

1. Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) 81:52:01

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) +0:37

3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +1:36

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +3:22

5. Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) +7:11

6. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) +8:00

7. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +8:41

8. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +9:51

9. Leopold Koenig (NetApp-Endura) +10:11

10. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +13:11

Points classification: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

Mountains classification: Nicolas Edet (Cofidis)

Combination classification: Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard).

Team classification: Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Link: Official website

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