This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural) won the 15th stage of the Vuelta, atop the race's first hors categorie climb, the Lagos de Covadonga. He jumped out of a breakaway group on that final climb, and took the win by 2:02. Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) came in second, with AG2R's Lloyd Mondory third.
Chris Froome of Team Sky finally cracked, unable to keep up with Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the brutal final climb. Those other three favourites stayed together until the end, cementing their podium positions.
A break group of nine riders dominated the stage, and with a lead of over fifteen minutes at one point, it was clear that they would stay away. The stage turned into two separate races, as the lead group fought for the win, while the four favourites continued the battle for the GC.
Contador's frustrations continued on this stage. He attacked five times on the final climb, but was not able to shake Rodriguez, and once again had to watch his rivals cross the finish line ahead of him.
Rodriguez easily maintained his 22 second lead over Contador, with Valverde moving up to third a 1:41. Gesink dropped to fourth, at 1:41. Nicolas Roche (AG2R) dropped out of the top ten, with Tomasz Marczynski of Vacansoleil moving up into the elite group.
Two races in one
All 183 remaining riders took to the start for the second consecutive high mountain stage. The course showed its true nature right from the beginning, as it started with a 25 km long slight ascent, followed by a 20 km long descent. There were very few flat sections to be seen all day.
Nineteen riders got away early and built up a slight lead, with 9 of them soon caught again. Meanwhile, heavy winds split the field, with about 40 riders, including fourth-ranked Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), being caught off the back. The two halves came back together, however, as the ten remaining escapees had only a 40-second lead.
That seemed to have been the go-ahead for that group, and Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale), Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Astana), David de la Fuente (Caja Rural), Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Vicente Reynes (Lotto Belisol), Simon Geschke (Argos-Shimano), and Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil) charged up the first climb, the category 3 Santo Emiliano at km 72, with a lead of over seven minutes.
De la Fuente led the way over the top, followed by Piedra and Seeldraeyers, and soon the gap skyrocketed to over nine minutes. After Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank led the chase on Saturday, Katusha returned to duty today, trying to cut down the huge lead.
But the gap just kept going up and up, and it soon became clear that the field was going to let this group go. After all, the highest ranked rider in the break was Kashechkin, at 22:34 down, so there was no threat to the four leaders.
The group took a lead of more than 14 minutes with them as they started up the day's penultimate climb, the category one Cangas de Onis. The 6.8km climb had an average gradient of over 8%, with sections over 11%. The gap hit the fifteen minute mark as they went up, but was at 14:22 when they crossed over the top.
From the gap started finally getting smaller, with the field hitting the mountaintop just under 13 minutes back. Both Orica-GreenEdge's Daniel Teklehaimanot and Thomas Dekker (Garmin-Sharp) crashed on the descent in separate incidents.
With it now being clear that there would be two races today – one for the lead group and another one for the favourites – things started happening. Kashechkin made the first move, picking up the pace as the break group started up the final climb, the Lagos de Covadonga. Lastras countered and brought things back together.
The Lagos de Covadonga is hors categorie, long and difficult. Piedra was the next to go with about 11km left, calmly pulling away from the others and quietly building up a lead of over 20 seconds.
His teammate De la Fuente moved to the front of the small group, holding them back as best he could to allow his teammate to get away.
Back in the peloton, Saxo Bank led the charge up the final climb. with Katusha right behind them. Contador then sent Daniel Navarro up the road for Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank. Movistar's Nairo Quintana jumped to mark the move, as Rigoberto Uran and Richie Porte pulled for Froome. The group was down to some 30 riders at this point.
Jesus Hernandez was the next to go catching and then passing Navarro, as everyone awaited Contador's move.
Up front, Piedra had 45 seconds as he hit one of he steepest sections, at 14 percent, and ground his way up. He quickly built up that gap to over a minute.
Igor Anton (Euskaltel) and Quintana soon joined the two Saxo Bank riders, as yet another Caja Rural rider, Marcos Garcia, took off from the Rodriguez group. He and Euskaltel's Amets Txurruka joined the other leaders.
Quintano went up the road again for Movistar, and he was joined by Euskaltel's Gorka Verdugo. Anton made the move up to them, and the three built up a small gap.
Froome was noticeably at the back end of the favourites' group, and soon started to fall back.
Seeing that, Valverde jumped, taking Contador and Rodriguez with him. They quickly caught Quintana and Anton, whilst Froome continued to go backwards. Quintana, who had been sent up the road earlier to set this move up, pulled the group up the mountain, soon building up a gap of 20 seconds.
Contador finally took off, but his perpetual shadow Rodriguez was right behind him, with Valverde and Quintana joining in.
The flamme rouge came on a slight descent, and Piedro, nearly forgotten, flew by the first lake. He had plenty of time to zip up his jersey and take the biggest win of his career, and a major triumph for his small Spanish team.
Contador jumped again, and Rodriguez slowly gave chase. Valverde seemed not able to go with them. Just beyond he 4km marker, Rodriguez and Contador were together, and they took the speed down again.
But they slowed down too much, as the two Movistar riders appeared out of nowhere to join them. The gap back to the Froome group was now 40 seconds, knocking the Briton off the podium. Again, it was Contador who jumped, with Rodriguez glued to his rear wheel. Valverde moved up to them, soon joined by the hard-working Quintana.
The four went together under the flamme rouge, with Quintana pulling the group into the final 500 meters. Valverde opened the sprint, and took it ahead of Rodriguez, with Contador as third in the group. They crossed the line about 9:20 behind winner Piedra.
Froome rallied enough to finish only 35 second down, but the damage had been done. The rest of the field dribbled over the line in small groups.