A slow-burning stage delivered the GC big guns to a thrilling winner-takes-all battle on a grueling climb to the finish. No ounce of effort was spared over the final 13km of climbing, from which Alberto Contador emerged victorious and all but sealed his Vuelta title.
Wait for it … wait for it … BOOM!
The slim time gaps in the GC going into today’s stage meant that for a number of riders it was all to play for. Yet, being the penultimate stage of this year’s race, it was the last chance saloon for all but race leader Contador. Couple that with a sawtooth parcours building to a nasty 13km final climb, and you’d be right to expect fireworks.
Initially, tempo was the order of the day, with Sky and Astana maintaining a high pace while a four-man break consisting of Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Maxime Mederel (Europcar), Jerome Coppel (Cofidis) and Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) enjoyed some airtime a few minutes up the road. This remained the state of the race right up until the final climb, as the last surviving break rider Niemiec fell back into the bunch after a valiant fight.
As the front of the race whittled down to the top five men in the GC, it was Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez who made the first move. He attacked on the steepest part of the climb, intent on nudging Valverde off the podium. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was unable to shut the move down and was forced to pace Contador, Chris Froome (Sky) and Fabio Aru (Astana) as he tried to haul Purito in. The effort took its toll, firstly on Aru, who fell away, and then on Valverde himself. He was cracked by an injection of pace from Froome and Contador.
Froome continued to set a strong tempo with Contador in tow, and it didn’t take them long to reel in and pass Rodriguez to set up a mano-a-mano duel for the stage. The Sky man attempted a show of nonchalance, riding non-handed for a few yards as he removed his sunglasses, but his condition and strategy were obvious. Desperate to drop Contador, he hit the gas and the strain was clear on his and El Pistolero’s faces as they both dug deep and ploughed through the throngs of fans lining the hillside.
Behind them, Rodriguez’s day turned worse as Valverde made one of the best recoveries since Lazarus and sped by him in hot pursuit of the lead pair. But there were no cat-and-mouse games between Contador and Froome to slow their progress and let Valverde in, just good old-fashioned full-bore effort. In the final kilometre as both riders grimaced with the effort, Contador managed to find enough to come around Froome and escape to take the stage, and almost certainly the overall, cheekily tapping his now fully operational right leg as he crossed the line.
VeloVoices rider of the day
My heart went out to Joaquim Rodriguez as he attacked with around 8.5km of climbing to go. He had over a minute deficit to overhaul to put himself on the podium, and he went for it. Brave? Certainly. Suicide? Probably. But it was his move that finally set the stage alight and provided the impetus for the titanic battle that ensued. Without that sort of no guts, no glory attitude, racing is nothing but a war of attrition. For that, Purito, I salute you.
Stage 20 result
1. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) 5:11:43
2. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:16
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +0:57
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +1:18
5. Fabio Aru (Astana) +1:21
1. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) 81:12:13
2. Chris Froome (Sky) +1:37
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +2:35
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +3:57
5. Fabio Aru (Astana) +4:46
6. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) +10:07
7. Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) +10:24
8. Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) +12:13
9. Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) +13:09
10. Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) +13:15
Points leader: John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano).
King of the Mountains leader: Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural).
Combined jersey: Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Team classification: Katusha.