This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Italy’s Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) took the best victory of his career at the top of the ridiculously steep Cuitu Nigru climb, grinding his way clear of breakaway rival Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil) in the final 2km of the stage when the gradient reached 24 per cent and more. Cataldo rolled over the line at little more than walking pace, seven seconds ahead of De Gendt, and immediately slumped over his bars having barely managed a victory salute.
At one point, the pair had enjoyed a lead of more than 15 minutes, but their advantage was little more than two at the finish, thanks to the latest gripping episode of the battle for the red jersey. Once again, Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) threw everything he had at race leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). Once again, Rodríguez held firm.
Contador’s team set a ferocious pace on the first half of the final ascent, shredding the peloton behind them. When Contador attacked with 6km remaining, only race leader Rodríguez and Movistar duo Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana managed to stay on terms with him.
In the final 500 metres, where most riders struggled to reach 10km/h, Contador launched the last of up to a dozen attacks, only to see Rodríguez shoot past him and gain two valuable seconds on the line as well as a four-second bonus for finishing third on the stage. Rodríguez now leads Contador by 28 seconds with Valverde at 2:04.
“I’ve taken a very big step because today I felt very good,” stated the Vuelta leader. “There’s a lot and not much left at the same time, with the summit finish on Wednesday and the finish on the Bola del Mundo, and a dangerous stage into Valladolid bearing in mind my advantage is just a few seconds. I said that the rider who reached the second rest day in the lead would have many options. I have those seconds and that makes me the favourite.”
Contador said he had given all he had on the final ascent. “I couldn’t shake off Joaquim, but I am very happy with my performance and that of my team. Sometimes you win and other times you don’t, but there is still a week to go and we’ve still got to climb the Bola del Mundo,” said the 2008 champion.
Contador added that he is hoping that rain might give him the edge over Rodríguez, who has looked impregnable in the heat of the last two weeks. “I had better legs today and I tried. But a rainy day would suit me better. We’ve been having lots of good weather with lots of sun. The rain could be my ally.”
Sky’s Chris Froome stayed in fourth place but now lies almost five minutes back, his hopes of a podium place almost certainly gone for good. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) continued to impress in what is only his second grand tour. The American finished eighth on the day to move up to seventh overall.
Cataldo and De Gendt make their move
Numerous riders attempted to get into escapes during the first hour of racing, but Froome’s Sky team neutralized them all until the race had passed over the 3rd-category Alto de la Cabruñana after 45 kilometres. Cataldo and De Gendt clipped off the front on the descent. The pair stretched their lead to more than a quarter of an hour climbing the first-category Puerto de San Lorenzo, where Saxo Bank took up pace-making in the main field.
Several minutes after De Gendt had led Cataldo over the top of the climb, David Moncoutié (Cofidis) attacked from the bunch with the aim of taking the points for third place on the San Lorenzo. However, the Frenchman couldn’t hold off Orica-GreenEdge duo Simon Clarke and Peter Weening, with Clarke taking third, which enabled him to hold onto the mountains jersey for another day.
Approaching the next climb, the first-category Alto de la Cobertoria, Euskaltel began to share the pace-making with Saxo Bank with the aim of setting Igor Antón up for the stage win. This injection of pace resulted in a rapid reduction in the advantage held by Cataldo and De Gendt, which fell to nine minutes as they reached the summit.
Rodríguez struggling or bluffing?
It appeared that Saxo’s pace-setting was affecting race leader Rodríguez on the upper slopes of the Cobertoria, who slipped to the back of the group. But was he bluffing? Contador dropped back to check out his rival, with Valverde also joining them at the back of the line. Katusha DS Valerio Piva told Spanish TV that he had no reason to be concerned. “Everything is under control. Purito told me he was fine. He has the situation under control,” he said of his team leader, adding: “I think whoever leads after today will win the Vuelta.”
Contador later explained that he had dropped to the back of the group to check out his rival’s form. “You always want to know how everyone us. We looked into each other’s faces for a bit. The more information you have, the better,” he said.
It would remain to be seen whether Rodríguez was struggling or not, but several other top-placed riders definitely were. Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) yo-yoed on and off the back of the group heading into the final climb, before losing contact altogether. Froome also looked uncomfortable but hung on. As the climb steepened, Rodríguez glided up towards the front of the group to sit on Contador’s wheel.
The hellish finale
Although De Gendt and Cataldo’s advantage was little more than six minutes as they started up the Puerto de Pajares, the launch pad for the final ascent, they appeared to have enough of a buffer to decide the stage between them. They continued to cooperate until 2km from home, when Cataldo didn’t so much attack as outlast his Belgian rival. The gap between them was never more than a few seconds, but that must have seemed like a lifetime to De Gendt as he peered up the final ramps to the Italian, who seemed to be riding in slow motion as he finally crossed the line.
Back down the mountain, Saxo had still been going full bore, Bruno Pires, Sergio Paulinho and Rafal Majka riding themselves to a standstill to set up Contador, almost literally in the latter’s case, as he all but stopped when he pulled aside. Jesús Hernández briefly took up the running, before Contador zipped past with 6km remaining.
Rodríguez was the first to respond. Valverde eventually got back on terms thanks to his young team-mate Quintana. Over the final 5km, that scenario was played out repeatedly as Contador tried to find a chink in the race leader’s defences. In the final kilometre, his face racked with pain, Contador went again, which finally saw off Valverde, but Rodríguez was unshakeable and, ultimately, irresistible as he skipped away, leaving no doubt he had been bluffing all along.