This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Denis Menchov took a memorable win atop the Bola del Mundo on stage 20 of the Vuelta a España. The Russian beat breakaway companion Riche Porte (Team Sky) after the pair had broken clear on the lower slopes of the demanding final climb of the day.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Bank Tinkoff-Bank) retained his grip on the leader’s jersey despite a brave fightback from Joaquim Rordiguez (Katusha) who attacked inside the final 4 kilometres and dropped both Contador and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Denis Menchov triumphs
The daunting Bola del Mundo, with its maximum gradient of 23 per cent was the final of five climbs with the Navafria and Canencia, the two category 1 climbs of Puerto de la Morcuera (9.2 km at 6.9%) and Puerto de Cotos (13.8km at 4.9%) serving as appetisers before the final showdown.
And what a final showdown. As Menchov and Porte snaked their way to the top of the final climb, Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez were locked in battle further down the climb: their margin in GC meant that no other competitor mattered as they occasionally drifted to the tail of the GC group in order to mark each other.
It was Valverde, who started the stage in second, 1:35 behind Contador, but 46 seconds ahead of Rodriguez, who played his hand first, attacking in an attempt to draw Contador and Rodriguez away from their teammates. Contador was the first to respond as Rodriguez appeared to labour up with the help of Daniel Moreno. A brief respite followed but Moreno was soon on the front, and drove clear with the podium placers as the likes of Chris Froome (Sky), Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) rode to limit their loses.
As Moreno pulled over, Rodriguez unleashed the first of his two major attacks. The first was closed by Contador but when the Katusha rider realised that Valderde was unable to respond he sprinted clear again. This time Contador was able to match the pace, and the race leader weaved through the crowds of Spanish fans in search of Rodriguez's rear wheel. But he wasn't to find it. Rodriguez continued to push on, slicing through the stragglers of the earlier 20-man break as the race leader struggled on the 23 per cent pitches. Contador was eventually caught and passed by a resurgent Valverde who crossed the line 25 seconds down on Rodriguez to hold onto his second place on GC.
Contador, who had looked unbeatable at Fuente Dé, slumped across the line a further 19 seconds down but had done enough to keep his lead before tomorrow's final stage to Madrid. The 29-year-old will ride into Madrid as the winner of the 2012 Vuelta, just over a month after his doping suspension ended but Rodriguez’s late attack had salvaged an amount of pride after his capitulation at Fuente Dé.
For Menchov, it was perhaps a last major hurrah. The Russian, a two-time winner of the Vuelta and three-time grand tour champion has ridden as a super domestique for Rodriguez in this year's race and at 34, his best years are behind him.
Friends with benefits
Stage 20 of the Vuelta a España, a 170.7km from La Faisanera to Bola del Mundo represented the last day in the mountains in this year’s race. Alberto Contador’s stunning victory at Fuente Dé appeared to have all but sealed the overall win but a number of possibilities and scenarios meant that the final red jersey of the race was still not a certainty. Simon Clarke’s (Orica-GreenEdge) slim advantage in the mountains competition meant that he needed to capitalise on an early break and a number of top ten positions were still up for grabs with less than two minutes separating positions 6th to 9th.
As anticipated as a Tiralongo Christmas card from Alberto Contador, the early break formed inside the first 20 kilometres on the first climb of the day. Clarke was among those to free themselves from the peloton, along with Juan José Cobo (Movistar), Maxime Bouet, Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Fredrik Kessiakoff, Kevin Seeldrayers (Astana), Klaas Lodewyck (BMC), David De La Fuente (Caja Rural), Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Thomas Peterson (Garmin-Sharp), Mikhail Ignatiev, Denis Menchov (Katusha), Denys Kostyuk (Lampre-ISD), Kevin De Weert, Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Tiago Machado (RadioShack-Nissan), Richie Porte (Sky), Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Simon Geschke (Argos-Shimano).
The Orica-GreenEdge climber took maximum points on the first three climb to wrap up the competition and the camaraderie within the break saw them gain close to seven minutes on the peloton. Despite putting a man in the break with Sicard, Euskaltel were determined to chase from the head of the peloton. It's true that they'd missed out on a stage in this year's race and that Anton had an outside chance of of sneaking into the top five overall, but with Sicard ahead the onus was surely on another team to chase. But one of Contador's most accomplished traits is to win friends and whether it has been Tiralongo or Euskaltel, he has made more friends than enemies during his career.
After the penultimate climb and with the 20-man break relatively intact and with a lead of 5:43, help in the chase finally arrived with Movistar and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank positioning themselves at the front of peloton. Rabobank, with Gesink and ten Dam both inside the top ten, were attentive to the increase in pace and followed suit.
Up ahead, the break was finally starting to disintegrate with Capecchi, Bouet, De Weert, Porte, Menchov and Kessiakoff forming a select group. However, Kessiakoff, Bouet and later Capecchi were dropped when Porte increased the pace inside the 9 kilometre banner.
De Weert was merely a spectator as Menchov and Porte traded turns and despite the Russian’s best persuasive measures, the Belgian stuck to the rear of the group.
In the peloton, Euskaltel, Saxo Bank and Rabobank continued to control affairs as Contador drifted down the shrinking peloton to mark Valverde, and the pair occasionally traded a word with each other as the peloton whittled down to less than 30 riders inside the final 7 kilometres.
The big finale
Lying 10th on GC, Benat Intxausti was the first mover and shaker to attack. It drew ninth placed Igor Anton into action, which in turn saw Rabobank's climbers give chase. Behind them, Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez continued their axis of staring, waiting and mind games.
It was Valverde who moved first and as the Spanish trio moved clear and eventually caught Anton, the final shakedown for the podium began.
Menchov and Porte were now inside the final 2 kilometres, De Weert already distanced two kilometres previously.
As the peloton turned right and onto the steepest sections, the crowds descended around Contador and Co. as the road tilted towards 18 per cent.
Porte continued to set the pace, delivering brief attacks that Menchov would answer in kind with a metronomically steady pace, but as the pair dipped inside the final 200 meters it was clear that Porte's legs were shot. Menchov, sensing blood, attacked in the right, opening up a gap of 17 seconds by the line.
Meanwhile Rodriguez had flown, rediscovering the form that seen him dominate the opening fortnight of the race. Contador, with a healthy but not impregnable buffer, was on the ropes but by the line he had retained his lead. With one stage to go, he leads Valverde by 1:16, with Rodriguez at 1:37. Chris Froome remains the best of the rest in fourth, 10:16 down, as Moreno rounds out the top five. Igor Anton remains in 9th.