Vuelta a España leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) showed that he can cope with longer climbs just as well as short and steep ones when he won the first of three consecutive summit finishes with a blistering final kick that carried him clear of Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) on the Puerto de Ancares.
This had seemed an unlikely scenario when Contador attacked 2km from the finish and opened up what appeared to be an unassailable advantage. The Saxo Bank leader distanced a group containing Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dani Moreno (Katusha), with Sky's Chris Froome struggling to get on terms just behind these three.
Froome, though, has shown several times this year that he should never be counted out in the high mountains. With little more than a kilometre to go, he accelerated up to and then past Rodríguez and Valverde. However, he quickly began to lose momentum, having seemingly given all he had left.
Rodríguez countered the Briton's attack, then accelerated away in pursuit of Contador, who was also having problems maintaining his pace on the 13% ramps leading up to the line. The Katusha leader got back up to his rival with 500m remaining, only to see Contador jump past him again. But this was the final throw of the dice by the 2008 Vuelta champion. Rodríguez quickly got back on to his wheel, then produced a devastating final surge that sealed the stage win and the 12-second time bonus that went with it.
Rodríguez's victory pushed his overall lead out to 22 seconds over Contador, with Froome and Valverde now tied at 1:41 and looking less likely to challenge for the two top places overall. Just as important for Rodríguez was the psychological blow he delivered to Contador, who is not used to being chased down in the mountains and looked distinctly rattled when approached by the press at the finish.
Despite holding the lead and having three stage wins to his credit, Rodríguez continues to portray himself as the underdog to Contador. "I'm not the big favourite. I'm just taking each stage as it comes, but there are still lots of stages and passes before we reach Madrid," he said at the finish. "The standings are still very tight, so I don't feel like I've won anything yet."
Rodríguez admitted that the pace Saxo Bank had set during the day had taken its toll, saying he expects there to be "a massacre" if that pace continues in the days ahead. "The Polish guy [Majka] set a very hard rhythm and I said to myself, ‘If we continue at this pace I'm not going to reach the top.' What happened was that everyone else thought the same and we had to slow down a bit. If we hadn't, I wouldn't have got there."
Clarke takes mountains jersey
There had already been a flurry of attacks when the break of the day formed after 19km. There were 16 riders in it, including four-time Vuelta mountains winner David Moncoutié (Cofidis) and Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Clarke, who is having the race of his career with a stage win already to his credit. Crucially for Rodríguez and Valverde, they had teammates in there as well in the shape of
Alberto Losada (Katusha) and Javi Moreno (Movistar).
That meant the onus was on Saxo Bank and Sky to police the break and prevent it from getting too much of an advantage on what was a relatively short stage. Contador's team were happy to do this, never letting the 16 escapees get much more than three minutes ahead as they rollercoastered through the verdant Asturian countryside.
Moncoutié took the points on the first of the day's five categorised climbs, but finished third on the next three, which were all won by Clarke, with Serge Pauwels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) taking second on each occasion. On the last of those four climbs, the first-category Alto Folgueiras de Aigas, the break began to split apart, as the Saxo Bank-led peloton closed in behind.
Saxo's Bruno Pires did a long stint of pace-making on this pass, which lined out the peloton behind. Or at least it did until Contador punctured towards the summit and had to stop to get a front wheel from Jesús Hernández. This allowed everyone to regroup and gave the remaining breakaways a bit more of a cushion as they chased over the summit and down towards the foot of the final ascent.
Losada goes alone
On the drop down towards the Ancares, Alberto Losada eased clear of his breakaway companions and started up the final climb with a lead of almost two minutes on the peloton, which was still being driven along by Contador's teammates. Contador, who had sat third wheel on the previous climb, dropped back to sit behind Rodríguez and Valverde as Saxo's Rafal Majka, Sergio Paulinho and Dani Navarro raised the pace significantly.
What had been a group more than 40-strong lined out and then split, with fifth-placed Robert Gesink (Rabobank) one of the first to be dropped. Majka produced a series of astounding efforts, the last of which saw him accelerate away off the front of the red jersey group with his team leader Contador right on his wheel. Launched perfectly by Majka, Contador got a decent gap, but Valverde closed it down, with Katusha duo Rodríguez and Dani Moreno joining them. All four riders then came up to and past the fading Losada.
Valverde pressed on, with Contador joining him. Rodríguez also closed the gap, but took longer to do so. Was he struggling or pacing himself? Contador attacked again with 2.7km remaining as if looking for an answer to this question. Once again, though, Valverde and Rodríguez came up to him, and for a few moments none of them seemed to know what to do until Moreno came up to them and began to set the pace. Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky also tagged on to this elite group, which steadily edged away from Froome.
Two kilometres from home, Contador unleashed his biggest attack so far, scorching clear as, finally, no one was able to follow. On so many occasions in the past, "El Pistolero" would have gone on to celebrate in traditional fashion after such an attack. But once again he was unable to hold off the turbo-charged Rodríguez, who showed in finishing second at the Giro d'Italia that he's now less likely to struggle on the longer climbs.
The scene is set for another epic duel between the pair at the historic Lagos de Covadonga summit finish on Sunday.