PENA CABARGA, Spain (VN) — There was a very tense moment about 500 meters from the finish line in Wednesday’s 17th stage when it appeared Juanjo Cobo’s dream Vuelta a España was turning into a nightmare.
Chris Froome (Sky) had unleashed a searing attack on the steepest upper ramps of the 6km Peña Cabarga climb.
With the Vuelta lead hanging in the balance, it looked like the elastic had snapped. Froome was powering away and Cobo’s grip on the Vueltas’s red leader’s jersey was unraveling.
Cobo — fueled by the support of rowdy fans from his Cantabria region — surged back to finish second and saved his red jersey by a slender, 13-second margin.
“There was a moment when I thought all was lost,” Cobo said. “It took all the inner strength I could muster. It was thanks to the fans who were cheering me on. It gave me the extra I needed to battle through.”
Cobo knew that this was perhaps Sky’s last chance to put him under pressure. Though four days of racing remain, Peña Cabarga was the Vuelta’s final summit finish.
Denis Menchov proved the loyal teammate to pace Cobo within 1.5km of the finish line when Froome started to get jumpy. When the Kenyan-born all-rounder attacked, it was Cobo who had to respond.
The grades of 12 to 15 percent favored Froome better than the 20-percent-plus gradients at Angliru, where Cobo stampeded into the race lead on Sunday.
Cobo lives and trains nearby, but said he’d never ridden up the Cabarga climb before. The upper part of the route is closed off to normal road traffic and Cobo didn’t race in last year’s Vuelta when it climbed it for the first time.
Froome — who did race the climb last year — surged clear with 400 meters to go and put Cobo on the ropes. With a 20-second time bonus waiting at the finish line, it looked like Froome might snatch away the stage and the leader’s jersey.
Just as suddenly, Cobo dug deep and actually passed Froome with 200 meters to go in a tug-of-war battle.
Froome countered and surged past him in the closing 75 meters to win the stage. Cobo trailed across one second back and took a second-place, 12-second time bonus to save the day.
“We knew that today would be the day that Sky would take the battle to us. You have to recognize Froome as the just winner of the stage. He was very strong and I was just able to follow him,” Cobo said. “We will keep fighting to defend this jersey. As everyone can see, this Vuelta is far from over.”
There was jubilation inside the Geox-TMC camp with the outcome of the stage.
Though a winner of the week-long Basque tour in 2007, Cobo has never been under such pressure as he’s now facing as a leader of a grand tour.
“Juanjo really saved the day today. We were worried because we knew that Sky would throw at us everything they had,” said Geox-TMC sport director Daniele Nardello. “The team responded all day. Menchov did great work for Cobo on the final climb. We’re one day closer to Madrid, but this was a big one to get past.”
Nardello said the team would be glad to see breakaways ride clear over the next three days to chew up the intermediate and finish-line bonuses that Team Sky could try to snag.
“It’s easier when you have the leader’s jersey. They have to try to take it away from us and it’s always harder to do that than to defend,” Nardello said. “The time bonuses will be important, even at the intermediate sprints. We will ride very carefully to try to take those out of the equation.”
Three more transition stages across Cantabria and Spain’s Basque Country, where the Vuelta is returning for the first time in more than 30 years, stand between Cobo and Sunday’s finale in Madrid.
After dodging a bullet Wednesday, Cobo admits that nothing is finished yet.
“I know the race is not over yet,” Cobo said. “It’s going to come down to the wire. Today was a very important pass, but there’s still battle to come.”