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Responding in the best way possible after being stubbornly marked and unaided by Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez on the final climb of Sunday’s stage, Alberto Contador proved a point when he raced to a solo victory on Monday’s sixteenth stage of the race.
Valverde and Rodriguez also suffered at the hands of Chris Froome, who was on a much better day and was able to punish the two Spaniards who had choosen not to drive the pace on Sunday, believing he was out of the running.
The Sky rider attacked with just over four kilometres to go, putting in a savage dig which only Contador could answer. The race leader was under no obligation to ride and sat on Froome’s wheel as he caught and dropped in lone leader Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale).
Valverde and Rodriguez steadily slipped backwards, with Astana’s Fabio Aru able to close up to them, albeit with difficulty.
Froome put in another couple of digs closer to the summit but was unable to shake off Contador. The Tinkoff Saxo rider calmly sat on his wheel, then put in a big attack with approximately 600 metres remaining, creating a gap right away.
He continued to push all the way to the line, where he rolled across to his first stage victory of this year’s race and to the winner’s time bonus. Froome came in 15 seconds back, while De Marchi hung on for an impressive third, 50 seconds behind. This denied the final time bonus to Valverde, who raced in five seconds later; Rodriguez was a further four seconds back in fifth place, with Aru, Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Robert Gesink (Belkin) netting sixth, seventh and eighth.
Rigoberto Uran, who had started the day sixth overall, suffered due to illness. The Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider was dropped early on, fought back on, but ultimately finished a long way back.
Contador now heads into the second rest day with a commanding one minute 36 second lead over Valverde. Froome is just three seconds further back in third place, while Rodriguez remains fourth but is now two minutes 29 seconds back.
Aru stays fifth and Martin slots in sixth, the place previously occupied by Uran.
Contador will be pleased with how the day turns out but has a slight headache as regards the defence of his red jersey in the days ahead; team-mate Ivan Rovny and Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider Gianluca Brambilla had a fistfight while in the day’s big break and both were disqualified before the finish.
It means that both teams are down a man, although with Uran out of the running the loss will be more keenly felt on the Tinkoff Saxo side.
Contador was pleased with the day’s showing, although he was clear that the race was not over. “Let’s say this is an important step in order to distance myself from all my rivals,” he said. “There are still five days of racing, lots of things can happen. My rivals are not totally out of contention even though I’ve extended my lead. And I can still have a bad day. I have to keep going day by day.”
Asked what could go wrong for him, he said that nothing was guaranteed. “I fear some trouble could occur, some race incident,” he stated, perhaps thinking of his crash in the Tour de France. “Something unexpected.”
He said that he had to respond to ‘three or four’ accelerations from Chris Froome on the final climb, and that it hurt. “Sometimes it doesn’t really show but I can assure you his changes of pace are strong,” he said. “I’ve come to be used to this duel, I know how he proceeds and I’m happy my legs could sustain it perfectly today.
“Our preparation is different than it was at other moments, the Dauphiné for instance, but I can tell you the race level is strong. We’re producing very high watts. We climbed La Farrapona at a very high average.”
Asked if he believed Rodriguez and Valverde were wrong not to collaborate with him on Sunday’s stage to distance Froome, he didn’t want to get drawn into questioning their tactics. “I think about myself, my race and they do the same on their own,” he answered.
How it played out:
The 16th stage of the Vuelta a España was the most savage to date, with five categorised climbs on the menu. The first came very soon after the start, namely the first category Alto de la Colladona (km. 17.6), then after a long, gradual descent the riders had the second category Aldo del Cordal (km. 69.4). A quick descent would bring the riders to the intermediate sprint of the Pola de Lena (km. 75.5), then right away the riders would face the first category Alto de la Cobertoria, the summit of which was located 86.2 kilometres from the start.
Another descent would bring the riders to the feed zone at kilometre 95.7, then as the road rises the second intermediate sprint at San Martin de Teverga (km. 116.2) would offer points for the green jersey contest.
That left two first category climbs on the parcours; the Puerto de San Lorenzo (km. 127.1) and the finishing climb of La Farrapona Lagos De Somiedo. In all the stage from San Martin Del Rey was 160.5 in length and looked set to have big importance in the general classification fight.
It would also offer much in the scrap for the King of the Mountains competition and it was little surprise that the former wearer of that jersey, Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) covered the first attacker of the day, Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team). Adriano Malori (Movistar) and ten others also went along.
The first climb whittled down the number of those in the lead to Sanchez, Dennis, Malori, Peter Kennaugh (Sky), Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff Saxo) and Stef Clement (Belkin). Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff Saxo team was chasing hard and reeled in the break with two kilometres left to the summit, but then let another group go clear.
Those present included Sanchez, Dennis, Malori, Rovny, Romain Sicard (Europcar), Peio Bilbao (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale), Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr), Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) and Peter Kennaugh (Sky).
Of those in the break, Sicard was best placed. He had started the day 17th overall, 13 minutes 15 seconds behind Contador.
Contador’s group was 15 seconds back, with Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) ten seconds adrift, thus explaining Tinkoff Saxo’s pace-setting.
Sanchez was first to the top of the climb, leading Dennis, De Marchi, Le Bon and Brambilla over the prime line.
Rodrigez managed to get back onto the main group during the descent. At kilometre 32 the leaders were 40 seconds clear of this bunch, but the lead ballooned after this and jumped to four minutes 20 seconds over the next ten kilometres.
It then increased to eight minutes 20 seconds at kilometre 48, prompting Rodriguez’ to direct his Katusha team to start chasing. He wanted to be able to fight for the bonus seconds at the end, thus trying to reduce his deficit to Alberto Contador.
The rider who had started the day sixth overall, Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma. Quick Step) had been ill in recent days and got into difficult on the second climb of the stage, the Alto del Cordal. Sanchez led over the top, with Bilbao second and Dennis third. The peloton was just over five minutes back at that point, with Uran a further 45 seconds behind but chasing with his team-mates.
Cunego won the intermediate sprint at Pola de Lena (km. 75.5), where Bilbao was second and Sanchez third. Meanwhile Uran got back up to the peloton right before the next climb; predictably, he was in trouble again once the road pitched upwards and slid out the back. His directeur sportif Davide Bramati (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) told TVE that his rider had been suffering from bronchitis.
The riders were on the Alto de la Cobertoria and at the prime line Sanchez beat Bilbao and Malori. Meanwhile former world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) attacked on the climb and went over the summit three minutes and 50 seconds back. The peloton was a further 25 seconds back at that kilometre 86.2 point, with Uran having managed to get back into the fold.
Break continues to plug away:
With 53 kilometres remaining the break’s lead had increased to five minutes; Cancellara, who appeared to be trying to get some conditioning work in before the world championships, was persisting despite still being three minutes 20 seconds back.
He was eventually reeled in with 41 kilometres to go. Christian Knees (Sky) was leading the peloton along, driving the pace to try to bring the break back and also to soften up the bunch.
Out front, the escape move wasn’t cooperating too well and Brambilla and Rovny started exchanging punches on the next climb. They were cautioned by the race judges, then Brambilla answered an attack by De Marchi with approximately 38 kilometres left. They were chased by Poels who joined up three kilometres from the top of the Puerto de San Lorenzo.
Behind, Uran was in trouble again as was Winner Anacona (Lampre-Merida). Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) was shelled too.
De Marchi was feeling good and dropped Poels before the top of the climb. He led Brambilla over the top, which was located at kilometre 127.1, approximately 33 kilometres from the end. Poels took third, with Sanchez adding to his points total with fourth and Dennis took fifth. Poels was able to rejoin the two leaders on the descent and, with 25 kilometres to go, they were three minutes clear of the peloton.
Contador dropped back with just over twenty kilometres to go and, after an apparent bike change, then started chasing with a team-mate. The latter was nearly clipped by a race motorbike, while out front the Sky team continued to put the pressure on. Contador latched onto the back and started to work his way up.
The three leaders raced onto the final climb but then with 15.3 kilometres left, Brambilla’s fisticuffs came back to haunt him and he was told to leave the race by the commissaires. He was hugely frustrated and dropped out of the break, gesticulating angrily, then later looking close to tears.
Rovny was back in the Contador group, sitting behind the Sky riders who were leading the pace and who took them under the 15 kilometre to go banner. It was initially unclear if he too would be asked to leave the race, but this instruction was given soon afterwards.
Final battle rages:
With 12.9 kilometres the two leaders were one and a half minutes clear, and coming back quickly. Kennaugh was leading the chase with Sky team-mate Philip Deignan second and Chris Froome sitting third.
De Marchi knew that time was running out and so he attacked with 11.8 kilometres left, dropping Poels. He had one minute 27 seconds with ten kilometres remaining, and increased this to one minute 33 seconds with seven kilometres left.
Deignan was driving the peloton along but had to stop very soon afterwards with a front wheel puncture. Froome still had others there, though, and Kennaugh returned to the front again, pushing the pace.
De Marchi was in a stubborn mood and with five kilometres left he still at one minute 18 seconds. His lead was coming down, but he was fighting all the way.
Kennaugh pulled over and Mikel Nieve took over. Froome was on his wheel with Contador right behind him, ready for the attack. They caught and dropped Poels, leaving just De Marchi out front.
Froome surged with just over four kilometres left and was immediately marked by Contador. Valverde and Rodriguez were dropped, unable to answer. Aru was further back and chasing alone while Dan Martin, seventh overall at the start of the stage, was feeling the effects of his crash yesterday and slipped backwards.
With 3.7 kilometres to go Froome and Contador were 35 seconds behind the leader, making it likely the stage win would be indeed up for grabs by the general classification riders. Aru caught Valverde and Rodriguez, while Contador sat on Froome’s wheel, marking the Briton.
De Marchi was finally caught with three kilometres to go. Froome continued to drive the pace, with Contador staying put on his wheel. Froome then jumped again with 2.4 kilometres to go, but couldn’t shake off Contador. Valverde, Rodriguez and Aru were 34 seconds back at that point.
Froome kept pushing and Contador started looking uncomfortable. Behind, Aru was being dropped at times, but then fighting back on again.
Froome led under the red kite and knew he had to drop Contador to make any inroads into his overall lead. Contador had other thoughts, though, and put in a big jump, getting an immediate gap. He pushed on towards the line, crossing it with his famous Pistolero gesture and picking up the top time bonus.
Froome came in 14 seconds back, then Valverde jumped clear to try to take third. De Marchi had ridden very strongly on the final second and hung on for the podium placing and the time bonus, denying the Spaniard. Rodriguez and Aru took fifth and sixth.
The net effect of the stage was that Contador extended his lead over all his challengers. Valverde remains second for now, but Froome is closing in fast and will look to take over that slot after Tuesday’s rest day. He’ll hope that his form keeps improving beyond that, believing that he can still chase the overall title.
Contador, though, is in the driving seat for now and will have better morale than ever after the race’s queen stage.
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