This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) made a stunning and unexpected escape on the 17th stage of the Vuelta a Espana, easily cruising his way into not only the stage win atop the Fuente De, but also taking over the race lead. Second place went to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and third place went to Sergio Henao (Sky), with a crushed Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) finally crossing the finish line 2:38 down in 10th place.
Rodriguez was the loser of the day, unable to respond to Contador's attack or the later one by Alejandro Valverde. Rodriguez had worn the leader's red jersey for 13 days, but today dropped back to third, as Contador took over first place and Valverde moved up to second.
Most observers had expected Contador to make his decisive move on one of the weekend's high-mountain stages. He tried, and often, but failed to drop the dogged Rodriguez on those stages, and it was generally considered that Rodriguez would pretty much have the Vuelta in his pocket. But a stunning tactical surprise worked out perfectly, as the unexpected attack on this "lumpy" stage saw Contador catch his two top rivals flat-footed. Valverde was slow to respond but Rodriguez had nothing left to give.
The top three in GC were turned upside down, and there were further changes in the top 10. Froome was still fourth but now nearly ten minutes down. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) stayed in fifth and sixth, with Rabobank's Laurens Ten Dam moving up to seventh. That dropped Garmin-Sharp's Andrew Talansky to eighth. Igor Anton of Euskaltel held on to ninth, while Nicolas Roche dropped out of tenth, to be replaced by Movistar's Benat Intxausti.
An unexpected attack
No one abandoned on the Vuelta's second rest day yesterday, but Vacansoleil's Rob Ruijgh called it quits about 40km into today's action.
The race got off to a nervous start, with multiple groups trying to get away but none succeeding. One time even Contador and Valverde formed an escape group, but Katusha fairly quickly shot that one down.
About 80km into the stage, just shy of halfway, 11 riders finally got away. Imano Erviti (Movistar), Lloyd Mondory (AG2R), Javier Ramirez (Andalucia), Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Lars Boom (Rabobank), Danny Pate (Sky), Bruno Pires (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM) were the lucky ones, but it was not really meant to be.
Their lead got all the way up 2:03, but that was it. The group fell apart on the first ascent of the day, the category three Collado de Ozalba, as Arnold Jeannesson moved up to the group.
A chase group formed on the descent, with a suspiciously large number of Saxo Bank riders. Sure enough, on the immediately following ascent up the Collado La Hoz, Contador took off out of the peloton. Rodriguez and Valverde did their best to follow, and further back, Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Chris Froome (Sky) struggled to even hold on to the field.
Contador crossed the top of the Collado La Hoz in third, with his two rivals 18 seconds back, and Gesink and Froome a whole minute behind them.
It was a powerful group which had formed around Contador: Sergio Paulinho (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Gorka Verdugo and Mikel Landa (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Paolo Tiralongo (Astana), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Alexandre Geniez (Argos-Shimano), Sergio Luis Henao (Sky), Nairo Quintana and Benat Intxausti (Movistar), Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ-BigMat), Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) and Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Nissan).
Paulinho set a blistering pace for the group, and it slowly but surely pulled away from Rodriguez. With 20km to go, the gap was one and a half minutes and rising.
Shortly before the last intermediate sprint of the day, Contador and Tiralongo, the Spaniard's friend and former Astana teammate, attacked out of the group.
The pair had 24 seconds on their immediate chase group as they started up the 17km climb to the finish, with Rodriguez and Valverde two minutes down, and the peloton at over three minutes.
Rodriguez with nothing left to give
Rodriguez concedes time
Surprisingly, neither Rodriguez nor Valverde seemed to make any serious move to catch Contador. Rodriguez lost his last teammate at the foot of the climb, and Valverde had been on his own for a while.
Valverde took off first, and Rodriguez followed – but only briefly. The diminutive Spaniard was unable to keep up at all, and looked resigned to having lost the match.
Perhaps aware that the leader had been dropped, Contador attacked with 13.5km to go, leaving Tiralongo nearly standing still.
Valverde soon caught his teammate Intxausti in the chase group, so he had a helper to pull him up the mountain, in an effort to make good as much time on Rodriguez as possible. The latter soon had Saxo Bank's Jesus Hernandez on his rear wheel.
Going into the final 10km, Contador had over 1:40 on Valverde, with Rodriguez struggling forlornly over two minutes down. The gap to Valverde dropped gradually, but Rodriguez gained no ground and slowly but surely fell further and further back.
Contador on the attack
Contador moved along easily, seeming to enjoy his solo effort. With three kilometers to go to the mountaintop he had only 30 seconds over Valverde, but the gap coming into the stage had been large enough for the Movistar rider to offer no real overall threat to him.
Valverde made good speed and moved up quickly, only 15 seconds back with two kilometers to go. Contador started looking nervously over his shoulder, knowing he had the overall lead secure but fearful of seeing the stage win – and accompanying bonus seconds – disappear.
Valverde passed under the flamme rouge only 13 seconds after his rival, but Contador could finally smile as he went up the final pitch to the finish. One final look under his arm with 300 meters to go assured him of the victory at last, and he raised his arms in ecstasy as he crossed the finish line six seconds ahead of Valverde.
It seemed like an eternity until Rodriguez came in, but it was only 2:38. At least he was spared the sight right behind him of Contador's teammate Hernandez celebrating his captain's victory.