This article originally appeared on Cyclingnews.com.
Daniele Ratto soloed in to victory atop the Collada de la Gallina in Andorra in the 14th stage of the Vuelta a Espana. The Italian Cannondale rider was part of a breakaway group which got away 3km into the day, and he took off on his own in the final 45km to take the biggest win of his career. On a miserably cold and rainy day in the Pyrenees race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) took second place at 3:53 followed by Chris Horner (RadioShack) for third two seconds later.
Nibali easily retained his overall lead, while seeing a number of his closest rivals in difficulty. Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who had come into the stage in seventh place overall, suffered from hypothermia and withdrew. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), previously third, dropped back and fought hard, but unsuccessfully, to get back to the group on the climb to the finish. Second-ranked Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) struggled on the final climb and lost seven minutes.
Horner's strong ride moved him back up to second place, 50 seconds down on Nibali, and Valverde maintained his third place overall, but is now 1:42 down. Roche dropped to sixth place.
Ratto, 23, had won only one previous race as a pro, the GP Industria & Artigianato di Larciano in 2010. This is only his second year in the WorldTour, having joined Cannondale last year.
"I've been waiting for a big win for three years. It's very important for me and for the team. It's incredible for me," Ratto said, overjoyed to have won the stage.
"The idea was to ride for Ivan today but the way the stage worked out it was ideal for me to go for it. Despite the rain and cold, I felt ok and was able to win."
Ratto was shocked to discover that Basso had retired during the stage due to the cold and rain.
"I didn’t know that. It was very cold and it clearly affected a lot of people. I dressed for the conditions. I'm sorry for Ivan Basso but I did what I could to win."
How it unfolded
The race started at midday in the rain and much cooler temperatures in Baga, on a day which promised few if any flat sections. Only 174 riders were there, as Orica-GreenEdge had the two non-starters of the day in Simon Gerrans and Sam Bewley.
Almost immediately a group formed around world champion and stage 12 winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC). Along with him were Steve Chainel (AG2R), Daniele Ratto (Cannondale) and two Belkin riders, Luis Leon Sanchez and Graeme Brown.
Surprisingly enough, the peloton let this group go. And go they did. After only 45 km of the 155 km stage, the gap had grown to 8:18 as they started up the day's first – and hardest – climb. That was the Port de Envalira, an HC climb which went up to the highest point of this year's Vuelta, 2410 meters. The 26.7 km long climb started out easily enough, but about halfway up showed its teeth, with a gradient up to 15%.
The leading quintet carried their gap of over 8 minutes into Andorra, as the Vuelta left Spain.
Both intermediate sprints were on the ascent, with the first coming at km 59.5. Chainel took it ahead of Ratto and Gilbert. Only then did the “official” climb up the Envalira start, with the lead group taking a 10:35 gap onto the climb. By the time they reached the second intermediate sprint, at km 70.4, Chainel and Brown had dropped back, and the three in front had a gap over the peloton of more than 11 minutes.
Katusha moved to the head of the peloton and turned up the speed, decimating the field on this long, brutal climb. Only about 40 riders were left in the group as it headed to the highest point of the race, and the corresponding 5.5°C temperatures.
Gilbert picked up 20 points by being first over the mountain, followed by Sanchez and Ratto. Chainel and Brown were fourth and fifth. Shortly before the greatly-reduced field came to the summit, Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) jumped and secured the remaining two points as sixth.
They all then faced a 20 km descent before the next climb, and the tricky descent and rain caused havoc. Sanchez crashed and abandoned the race, while Ratto moved into the lead ahead of Gilbert. Behind them, the gap dropped to 8:30 and Ivan Basso (Cannondale) was the first of the favourites to have troubles.
The leaders started the next climb, the category 2 Coll de Ordino, with Ratto maintaining a lead over Gilbert, with Sanchez somewhere behind. The pace, course and difficult weather conditions continued to take a toll on the field,which by this point had split into multiple groups.
Ratto and Gilbert conquered the second climb, and the field was now 8:17 back. A group of nine attacked out of that field: Jose Herrado (Movistar), David Arroyo (Caja Rural), Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural), Igor Anton (Euskaltel), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel), Pablo Urtasun (Euskaltel), Thibaut Pinot (FdJ), Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil). But they were unable to stay away for long.
With 20 km and still two categorised climbs to go, Ratto had two minutes on Gilbert. The new chase group was at 8:05 and the field at 8:40. The cool temperatures and rain continued to make life difficult for them all. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) had difficulties on the descent of the Ordino and fell back.
Ratto kept on going and soloed across the category two Alto de la Comelia. It was a tricky descent in the wet, and even he had problems along the way, putting his foot out of the pedals to take one corner.
Basso's troubles were confirmed when it was announced that he had abandoned the race. He had started the stage in seventh place overall but went close to suffering from hypothermia in the cold. Valverde too seemed to be suffering from the severe weather and was 40 seconds behind the field as the final climb to the finish kicked in.
No fear for Nibali and Horner
Race leader Vincenzo Nibali didn't have anything to fear from Ratto. The Italian came into the stage in 113th place overall, nearly one and a half hours down. Gilbert apparently decided to save his powder for another day, dropping further and further back, over six minutes with only 5 km to go. The group of favourites had by then also dwindled to only 20 or so riders.
That group fell apart on the final climb., and even Nicolas Roche suffered in the end, dropping back.
Horner, Kiserlovski and Nibali were alone in the final four kilometres, with Kiserlovski soon dropped. Horner saw his chance to move back up to the top three, and took advantage of the opportunity. Nibali let the American do the lead work on the way up, every now and then coming up alongside of him as if to let his rival know that he was in no fear of losing time. They caught and quickly passed Gilbert.
Ratto was showing signs of exhaustion on the final way up. The rain was no longer so heavy, but the gradients of up to 15% were hard on his tired legs. He wearily wound his way up the seemingly interminable final kilometer, and still had enough energy to celebrate his win as he crossed the finish line.
The stage was still far from over, though. Horner and Nibali still dueled their way up the mountain, and Valverde, forced into a pursuit match, still struggled to make contact with the riders ahead of him.
As expected, Nibali took off in the final meters to secure second place and the bonus seconds, even managing to build up a two-second gap on Horner, who finished third. Valverde limited his losses better than expected, coming in some 45 seconds later as sixth.