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Nibali goes flat; air leaks out of Vuelta GC battle

Just when it looked like the Vuelta a España might still have some suspense, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) had a bad day.

Thursday’s lumpy romp across Spain’s northern mountains had ambush written all over it, but Team Sky throttled any would-be raiders. Chris Froome (Sky) decided the best defense was a strong offense, and attacked on the final ramp to the line.

Who got gapped? The lone rider who possibly had the key to cracking open “Fortress Froome.” The Italian languished in the final kilometer to cede important ground just when he couldn’t afford it.

Nibali limped across the line 21 seconds behind Froome, and slipped to 1:37 back. The 2010 Vuelta winner is still second, but he moved in the wrong direction. Time is running out in this Vuelta.

“It was another finish that wasn’t suited for me,” Nibali said at the line. “I just couldn’t finish off those last 500m. The reality is, 20 seconds isn’t that much.”

Huh? Twenty seconds is a lot, especially with steep and long summit push to Anglirú looming Saturday.

In contrast, Froome was all smiles after adding to his buffer following losses in Wednesday’s brutal climb up Los Machucos.

“It’s nice to increase my lead to Nibali by 21 seconds. That’s quite significant,” Froome said. “I might need every second I can get once we hit the Anglirú on Saturday.”

Thursday’s four-climb transition stage across Cantabria and Asturias in northern Spain traversed similar terrain where Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) launched a daring raid to upend race leader Joaquim Rodríguez and win the 2012 edition of the Vuelta.

Contador was jumpy again Thursday, but couldn’t go clear until the final ramp. The proud Spaniard followed Froome’s late surge, and was hoping to gap his direct podium rivals Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin).

Contador crossed the line with Froome and Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), but only drew back four seconds on his two podium rivals.

“Everyone was asking me today, ‘When are you going to attack?’” said Contador, fifth at 3:34 back. “Sky is very strong, but you have to keep trying. Some riders don’t attack because they are afraid of paying for it. That’s the opposite of my style. I would rather attack just to see if they might not be able to respond.”

With Friday’s undulating stage 19 into Gijón likely going to a breakaway, the GC riders will now hold their fire until Saturday’s assault of the Anglirú, considered one of Europe’s most challenging climbs.

Froome is comfortably back in the driver’s seat. He clawed back some valuable time on his most direct rival, and is only days away from finally winning the Vuelta after coming second on three occasions.

“Today worked out perfectly in our favor,” Froome said. “Some of the guys paid for their efforts yesterday. It feels great to take back some time, especially after giving some up yesterday. The morale is still good, and the team is still strong. Now we’re looking forward to getting through these next few stages.”

With Nibali throwing away valuable seconds, Froome will be able to ride in full damage control Saturday. The only real race that remains in this Vuelta could be the battle for the final podium spots behind the Sky captain.

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