Vuelta a España 8: Valverde topples Contador

Contador passed just before finishline

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Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won stage 8 of the Vuelta a España atop the Collada de la Gallina in Andorra, snatching away what looked to be a sure victory for Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank). Race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) finished second, as he and Valverde passed Contador within sight of the finish line. Sky's Chris Froome was unable to keep up in the last few hundred meters, finishing 15 seconds down.

Rodriguez maintained his overall lead, followed by Froome and Contador. Valverde moved up to fourth while Robert Gesink of Rabobank dropped to fifth.

The finale proved to be an exchange of blows by the top four riders, as they charged up the final climb. Froome did much of the early pace-making, as the three Spaniards were happy to let him do the bulk of the work. The Englishman attacked out of a curve inside the final kilometer, but Contador countered it with an explosive acceleration of his own. It looked as if he was going to take a comfortable win, but when he looked back with less than 100 meters to go, he saw his two countrymen rapidly approaching. They were both able to whip around him in the final meters.

Froome was the loser of the day, which seems an odd thing to say for a rider who is still in second place, but he saw his deficit to Rodriguez extend from 10 seconds to 33 seconds. More importantly, he was unable to respond when Contador attacked at the end, and could only watch the other two Spaniards take off to claim the two top spots on the day.

There were other changes in the top ten, as defending Vuelta champion Juan José Cobo (Movistar) and Sergio Henao (Sky) dropped out and Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) and Euskaltel's Igor Anton moved up. Rabobank now has three riders in the top ten.

An uphill day

One rider was missing at the start, as Yoann Bagot of Cofidis was out with a broken elbow. The pace was rapid from the moment the flag was dropped, as attack after attack looked to move clear of the peloton, but neither Sky nor Katusha was satisified with the make-up of the early breakaway attempts. Accordingly, the peloton covered over 52 kilometres in the first hour of racing, and a successful breakaway group didn’t stabilise until the 75km mark.

Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), Amael Moinard (BMC), Javier Ramirez (Andalucia), Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge), Martijn Keizer (Vacansoleil), and Javier Aramendia (Caja Rural) formed the sextet which quickly built up a lead of 9:26. That was enough for Teams Sky and Katusha, who jumped to the front and picked up the speed, slowly bringing the gap down.

With 40km left on the stage, the peloton crossed the border into Andorra, by which point the field had reduced the gap to seven minutes.

Soon the first ranked climb of the day loomed, the Alto de la Comella. A category two, it featured fairly light gradients. On the ascent, Moinard kicked things up a notch, and Keizer and Aramendia fell back from the lead group.

Ramirez led Meyer and Moinard over the top, but the field had climbed up to only 2:34 down. Moinard then pulled away on the descent, but the other three caught him again.

The final climb of the day, which followed immediately, was a new one to the Vuelta, the Collada de la Gallina. The Gallina was not a long ascent, but had widely irregular gradients, with patches of up to 18% on the many switchbacks along the way.

The four leaders took about two and a half minutes with them as they started up the Gallina, with Sky still chugging away in the lead behind them. The two escapees who had earlier dropped back were caught along the way, with the leaders at only 1:24.

With about 5km still to go, Moinard finally had to drop back. Only about a minute back, Alberto Contador was holding steadily on to Chris Froome's rear wheel, with Rodriguez right behind them.

Meyer had the best legs from the remaining leaders and took off on a solo attempt.

Valverde was the first of the favourites to jump, with 3km to go, but he was soon joined by the three riders overall at the head of affairs. Froome and Contador then took off, and Valverde and Rodriguez had to scramble to stay in contact..

Froome and Contador caught Meyer on one of the steep sections, just beyond the two km to go banner. The young Australian hung on to the other two, and soon they were all joined by Valverde, Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno, as Rodriguez was the only one lucky enough to have a teammate with him.

The high-powered group of six ground its way up the Gallina, with Froome doing much of the lead work. Meyer finally dropped back, as did Moreno. Rodriguez then took over the lead, and led the four favourites under the flamme rouge.

Froome quickly attacked out of a curve, but that was to be his final flourish on the day. The other three easily caught him, and Contador then jumped into the lead on roads thronged with supporters. He pulled away easily and quickly built up a tidy lead, as the other two Spaniards did not help Froome with the chase.

Contador looked to have the win wrapped up, so he must have been shocked to peek over his shoulder in the final 100 meters to see Rodriguez and Valverde quickly approaching him. They passed him in the final meters, while Froome struggled across the finish line some 15 seconds later.

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