In taking the stage win atop Peña Cabarga this afternoon Team Sky's Chris Froome very nearly decided the fate of this year's Vuelta a España, forcing Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) to defend his red jersey in a stunning battle mano-a-mano on the tough slopes of the day's final climb.
The Brit won the day and undoubtedly the hearts of many fans with his stunning attack within the final two kilometres but the Spaniard held onto his overall advantage, narrowly finishing second to Froome on the stage, with Rabobank rider Bauke Mollema taking third, 21 seconds behind the duo. Daniel Martin finished fourth, three seconds behind Mollema.
While only 565m in altitude, the finishing climb of stage 17 provided a launch pad for plenty of attacks and some intriguing racing, as man after man tried his luck with forays off the front of the peloton, only to be dragged back. Froome bided his time and kicked hard when it mattered, turning himself inside out in the final 1,500 metres to take the spoils.
Despite not snatching the jersey off Cobo's shoulders, the Kenyan-born rider was pleased with his efforts. "That was indescribable," said Froome after the finish. "It was one of the hardest days on the bicycle of my life."
"It was the last mountain top finish and both Bradley and myself came into the stage trying to do as much as we could. But as you could see, Cobo was so strong and he holds the jersey by 13 seconds."
While Wiggins went into the Vuelta as Team Sky's leader, Froome's finishing move was an obvious sign that he's currently the stronger of the squad's two men who sit high on general classification and he explained the rationale of team leadership after the stage: "Some days Bradley is stronger [than me] and other days I'm stronger; the team has been fantastic – it's been a real team effort.
"The worst is now over – we still have to go out and make the most of it but the hardest is over," he added.
Sting in the tail
The Vuelta's 17th stage didn't appear too complicated or difficult on paper but at 211km and with climbing most of the day, it would prove to be taxing for most, even those who finished the day high on the standings.
Consequently, the peloton kept matters in check for over half of the parcours, despite an aggressive start to proceedings. A 20-man group containing the likes of Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Oliver Kaisen (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Guillaume Bonnaford (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Evgeni Petrov (Astana) and Johannes Frohlinger (Skil-Shimano) got away with 116km raced.
With 80km until the finish, the group had 2:50, which was cut to 1:17 at the summit of the day's first climb, the third category Portillo de Bustos, where Christophe Le Mevel picked up the intermediate points.
On the slopes of the day's second climb, the Portillo de Lunada, Kaisen tried his luck with an attack but was reeled in by his breakaway companions with 57km remaining in the stage. Five kilometres later that leading group was caught by Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar), Mathias Frank (BMC Racing) and king of the mountains David Moncoutié (Cofidis) to form a potent combination at the head of the race.
While the leaders played around with mountains points, the peloton was getting stuck into the task of making progress ahead of the day's finishing climb. At the base of the descent the break's number was up, the cue for Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) and Pablo Lastras (Movistar) to counter-attack, albeit in a short-lived endeavour.
Let the attacks begin!
Despite some one-off attacks it wasn't until five kilometres remaining that the quality moves started in earnest as stage nine winner Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) jumped clear, followed by Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Bruseghin in pursuit.
Four kilometres from home, Martin had eight seconds over Bruseghin but that would only last for another 600 metres, as the Italian caught his Irish rival and pushed the pace even higher. With three clicks until the finish they were joined in their advance and held 14 seconds over the peloton, with Sorensen somewhere in the middle.
Unwavering in his pursuit of the leading duo, Sorensen caught Martin and Bruseghin just as Omega Pharma-Lotto's Jurgen Van Den Broeck launched the attack he'd been threatening to unleash for some time. The Belgian pinned his ears back and within 500 metres had caught and passed the front three, his sights set on the finish.
The final 1.5km averaged 13 percent and boasted a maximum gradient of 19 percent and it hurt Van Den Broeck – he was caught ahead of the flamme rouge, with Nieve keeping pace ahead of Cobo, Wiggins and Froome.
Undeterred, he attacked again, putting Wiggins in difficulty while Froome went with the Belgian's move and impressively countered in an attempt to take the overall lead; belting out the final metres of the stage, his face wracked in agony, Team Sky's second in charge signaled his status as the squad's main man during the final week of racing.
He carried on his run to the line as attention turned to Cobo, whose red jersey was at stake. He was briefly distanced and looked to be losing time to Froome, but he defended valiantly to battle back to the Sky rider's wheel and very nearly took the stage win. Froome dug deep and dove into the last corner to take the stage with Cobo only just falling short. Both riders were completely spent and sitting on the ground in agony after the finish.
Behind the exhausted duo at the front, Bruseghin, Igor Anton and his Euskaltel-Euskadi teammate Mikel Nieve, Van Den Broeck and Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) rolled in over the next 30 seconds. Wiggins would finish 39 seconds behind but remains in third overall and now looks destined to take his first Grand Tour podium, although it could have been so much more.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.