This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) claimed stage 4 of the Vuelta a España and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) moved into the overall lead at the summit finish at Valdezcaray on day that saw Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) lose his red jersey in rather contentious circumstances.
Valverde was one of a number of fallers in a crash inside the final 30 kilometres, just as Chris Froome’s Sky team was looking to split the peloton in the stiff crosswinds that buffeted the race on the run-in to the day’s final climb. Although Sky had already begun to set the pace just before Valverde came a cropper, the British team paid no heed to his plight and persisted in their efforts all the way to the foot of the Valdezcaray, in spite of the exhortations of Valverde’s teammate Beñat Inxausti.
Rodriguez’s Katusha team briefly aided in the pace-making at the front before relenting on learning of Valverde’s fall, while Alberto Contador’s Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team maintained a watching brief throughout.
The merits or otherwise of Sky’s particular interpretation of cycling’s unwritten rules are sure to be debated at length in the days to come, but their actions had an immediate impact out on the road. The peloton split into four echelons, with Valverde caught up wreckage of the peloton, scavenging from group to group in a doomed attempt to catch the leaders.
Valverde managed to limit his losses on Froome, Rodriguez and Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) to 55 seconds by the finish, but the Spaniard – who this year returned from suspension for his implication in the Operacion Puerto blood doping investigation – cut an irate figure as he crossed the line.
Clarke crosses the line in front of Tony Martin of Omega Pharma-QuickStep
“They didn’t have the balls to stop, they chose an unsporting way,” Valverde said at the finish. “Sky formed an echelon and they’re perfectly within their rights to do that. I’m not cross that I lost the lead because of this, but because there was no respect.”
Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha was on the front when Valverde fell but he claimed that he was not aware that the red jersey had hit the deck. “Nobody told me to stop and I only heard later that Valverde had fallen,” he said.
While Valverde was picking through the debris at the rear of the field, Simon Clarke was riding to the first win of his career up ahead. The Australian had been part of the day’s early break and he was the only one of their number who could match Tony Martin’s (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) pressing at the foot of the final climb.
Martin and Clarke had a lead of 4 minutes at that juncture, the steepest section of the Valdezcaray, and they measured their effort perfectly on the shallower slopes that followed in the final 9 kilometres to hold off their erstwhile companion Assan Bazayev (Astana). Even when an Alberto Contador acceleration behind dramatically cut away a large swathe of their lead in the finale, the pair refused to panic and emerged to fight out a tense sprint at the summit.
Clarke showed considerable sangfroid in the closing metres, marshalling Martin to the front and then refusing to accept his invitation to lead out from distance, before dispatching the German with room to spare in the sprint.
"Tony is a really good time triallist, but I thought I could have him in a sprint. I made sure to have him in front in the wind,” Clarke said. “This is my first win as pro, I've been a pro for four years and I've tried so many times, I've had so many seconds and third places, I'm just so happy.
"It was such a long day with so much wind in the finish. I knew Tony would be strong, but I wanted to make it a hard climb because I knew Bazayev is fast.”
A jumbotron provides live race action for fans waiting on the climb
Contador on the offensive
The category 1 climb to the ski station at Valdezcaray will have dominated the tactical discussions aboard the team buses in Barakaldo before the start, and the peloton was more than happy to allow a break sally off the front in the opening hour of racing. Martin, Clarke, Bazayev, Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia) and Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) gratefully accepted the invitation, and at one point the quintet held a 13-minute lead.
Sky’s ferocious stint of pace-making in the kilometres either side of Valverde’s crash saw that advantage tumble dramatically in the finale, and when the overall contenders began to race in earnest on the final, 13.4km ascent to the finish, they knew that were racing for possession of the red jersey if not necessarily the stage win.
After launching no fewer than seven attacks on the Alto de Arrate the previous day, Alberto Contador was slightly more circumspect on the longer climb on Monday, as if acknowledging that he must still feel his way back to full form following his return from suspension in early August.
The peloton speeds through stage 4
Nonetheless, the Spaniard will have been in equal parts encouraged and frustrated by his exploratory probe on the steepest section of the final climb. Aided by his teammate Daniel Navarro, Contador succeeded in pulling Chris Froome and Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) clear of the main group of favourites. In spite of a further acceleration, however, he was unable to rid himself of Froome and they were reeled in by a resolute Katusha chase three kilometres later on.
Contador’s attack did yield a collateral gain nearer the summit, as Igor Anton (Euskatel-Euskadi) wilted and conceded 30 seconds. Rodriguez, Froome and Contador are separated by a mere five seconds in the top three positions overall, with the Rabobank pair of Laurens ten Dam and Robert Gesink just behind, and the battle lines for final overall victory are already beginning to be drawn.
“Alberto put in a good acceleration on the climb but I preferred to stay calm and wait to chase,” Rodriguez said after he pulled on the red jersey of overall leader.
Another impressive performer on the stage was Nicolas Roche, who continued alone after Contador and Froome sat up. The Irishman was joined in the closing kilometres by the aggressive Marcos Garcia (Caja Rural), Linus Gerdemann (RadioShack-Nissan) and Laurens ten Dam, and they came home just ahead of the main group of favourites.
The story of the day was Valverde's fall and Sky's actions thereafter, however, and it remains to be seen if the reverberations from the inevitable polemic will impact on the race once the dust has settled.
Rodriguez took the leader's jersey from Valverde