Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank-Sungard) took victory on stage 16 of the Vuelta a España in bizarre circumstances ahead of Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek). while Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) retained the red jersey.
As Bennati's Leopard Trek squad strung out the peloton in the closing kilometres, it looked as though a long, hot day in the saddle was going to end as scripted with a straightforward bunch sprint in the streets of Haro. Although a plethora of sprinters have already left the race, Petacchi, Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) were among the riders lined up behind Bennati and his lead-out man Robert Wagner approaching the final bend, and the stage seemed set for a grandstand finish.
Instead, it turned out to be something of a damp squib; when Wagner swung off the front on a roundabout with 300 metres to go, he took a wrong turning, veering off to the right instead of following the race route on the left.
"Unfortunately due to tiredness and the chaotic nature of a finish, Robbie [Robert Wagner] followed the motorbike right around the roundabout instead of heading left towards the finish," Leopard Trek directeur sportif Luca Guercilena explained. "Daniele had to brake too much. He wasn't able to go straight to the line."
While Bennati hesitated momentarily before choosing the right path, the well-placed Sagan started to follow Wagner but then locked up the brakes as he recognized his mistake and fell out of contention. Sensing the confusion, Haedo cleverly launched his sprint early, and emerged from the roundabout with a healthy advantage over Bennati and Petacchi.
The Argentinian even had time to sit up and savour his first Grand Tour triumph in the final 50 metres, and Petacchi's impressive final effort ultimately proved to be in vain. A disappointed Bennati recovered to come home in third, just ahead of Vicente Reynes (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Leigh Howard (HTC-Highroad).
"It crowns my career so far, absolutely! I’ve won stages at other important races like the Critérium du Dauphiné, Tirreno-Adriatico or the Tour of Catalunya, but this one is the most beautiful of them all," Haedo said afterwards. "This success is a gift for the sixteen days of suffering I've experienced. I’ve done the right thing staying in the race…"
While there was considerable consternation among the sprinting fraternity about the confused final kilometre, Saxo Bank directeur sportif Brad McGee was adamant that Haedo would have won regardless of Wagner's wrong turn.
"He was ready, was in the perfect position in the finale and he was better tactically and physically in the technically demanding sprint where some riders took the wrong turn in the last roundabout," McGee said. "But it would have made no difference. JJ (Haedo) was simply better than everyone today and we hope he can repeat this win on Sunday in Madrid."
Froome's move checked by Cobo
The finish-line intrigue was not confined just to the sprinters, as Juan José Cobo and Team Sky brought their battle for overall supremacy from the vertiginous slopes of the Angliru to the plains of La Rioja.
Barely 10km from the finish, Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia-Caja Granada), the final survivor of the day's breakaway, was engulfed by the peloton on the cusp of the second intermediate sprint. With seconds at a premium in the fight for the red jersey, Froome sensed his opportunity and moved towards the front of the bunch.
Although he was thwarted in his hunt for the full six bonus seconds by the quick thinking of Cobo's teammate David De La Fuente, Froome did manage to pick up the two seconds on offer for third place behind Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo).
By the time the stage was done, however, Froome's hypothetical advantage would be wiped out. The Briton and his teammate Bradley Wiggins were caught behind when the peloton split on the high-speed run-in to the finishing line, and Froome handed back his short-lived two second gain to Cobo before it even registered with the time keepers.
While the gap was minimal, there is no underestimating the impact that Cobo's tenth-place finish will have on his morale. With the race poised on a knife edge and with a series of tight stages to come in the Basque Country, every gain, temporal or psychological, is to be treasured in a tense final week to the Vuelta.
For a stage that culminated in such dramatic fashion, its beginnings were altogether more banal. Barely a kilometre after the flag was dropped, Julien Fouchard (Cofidis) jumped clear with Andalucia-Caja Granada pair Jesus Rosendo and Antonio Cabello, and a weary-legged peloton duly left them to it.
The trio built up a lead of 8:30 after just 40km, but when the sprinters' teams stirred from their slumber shortly after the midway point, their gap began to fall softly. With 30km to go, Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) thundered to the front of the bunch, in what is set to be his final appearance of this year's Vuelta – the Swiss rider announced before the stage that he will leave the race this evening to fine-tune his preparation for the world championships.
Perhaps sensing that Cancellara had a plane to catch, Rosendo opted to leave his breakaway companions behind and try his luck alone shortly afterwards. Although he put up solid resistance to the chasing pack, he knew that his time off the front was limited, and he was duly snaffled up on the run-in to the final intermediate sprint.
As the pace picked up in the main field, a crash removed a number of riders from contention, with the worst affected riders being Rafal Majka (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Although Rodriguez was able to ride gingerly to the finish in the company of a loyal platoon of Katusha teammates, the Spaniard had conceded 5:30 by the finish, and said that he would decide on his continued participation on Wednesday morning.
Rodriguez, so dominant in the opening week of the race, has endured a rather more difficult spell since. The home favourite before the Vuelta, Rodriguez's crash was overshadowed on the day by the dramatic incident in the final kilometre, while in overall terms, Spanish hopes were already pinned to Juan José Cobo.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.