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Alberto Contador survives the battle of Lagos de Covadonga

Przemyslaw Niemiec takes stage 15 just ahead of a battle for the overall starring Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez

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Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) soloed to victory atop Lagos de Covadonga on Sunday as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) fought a three-up duel for primacy at the Vuelta a España.

The 152.2km stage 15 from Oviedo to Lagos de Covadonga served up two ranked climbs, along with a host of lesser ascents and a steady rain.

The first categorized ascent, the category-2 Puerto del Torno, was a 7.2km stretch averaging 8.2 percent. The second, to Lagos de Covadonga, was the first “categoría especial” of the 2014 Vuelta, with stretches exceeding 10 percent and a 400-meter finishing section with pitches of 17.5 percent.

Photos from stage 15

Niemiec (26th overall, at 16:18) got busy early as the best-placed man in a five-man break with Kristof Vandewalle (Trek Factory Racing); green jersey John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano); Francisco Javier Aramendia Llorente (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA); and Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge).

The escapees took more than 11 minutes at one point, but as Movistar took an interest in the gap and the chase began to close in, he and Meyer would leave the others behind on the rainy grind to Lagos de Covadonga, and finally Niemiec rid himself of the Orica rider as well.

As he rode alone to the victory, Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez battled with Chris Froome (Sky), Fabio Aru (Astana), a spunky Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano), and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) — who had to chase back on after a mishap that required the loan of a bike from a teammate and a furious team time trial that didn’t connect with the peloton until just short of the final climb.

“Today was very difficult for me,” said Niemiec. “We wanted to get into a breakaway, because we knew there was a chance to win. In the morning, we talked about resting to save up for the stage tomorrow, but during the stage, I felt good, and rode into the break. We all worked together well to give the breakaway a chance. …

“It was very difficult in the end, and I knew the attacks were coming from behind. I wasn’t sure to make it until the final meters.”

As Niemiec celebrated his victory, the Contador trio finally escaped the others, and it was Valverde who had the most punch at the end, dropping the race leader to finish five seconds behind Niemiec, in the same time as Rodriguez; Contador hit the line five seconds later.

On the overall, Contador retained the leader’s red jersey. but Valverde is now just 31 seconds down in second, with Froome third at 1:20 in a tie on time with Rodriguez.

“Things are going well,” said Contador. “It was another hard day today. The most important thing is that the legs are responding.

“It was a shame not to put more time into a rider like Froome. Even though the last time trial is short, he will be a danger until the end.

“We got through the day, and I am still in the leader’s jersey. The last part of the Lagos, it’s more flat, and we could have cooperated, but it’s complicated, and everyone wants to make their own race. Tomorrow will be another hard stage, it’s even harder than today, and it could be raining.”

Rodriguez said he remains hopeful in what has been “a very fast Vuelta.”

“We are fighting every day,” he said. “We’re not going bad. You cannot never lose hope until the last stage.

“It’s been a very complicated Vuelta, with the heat, the wind, the time trial, and now the rain. We all know how each of us races, be it Froome, Contador or Valverde. Everyone is at a good level. Alberto was complaining there was no collaboration, but my team was working all day.

“My team is supporting me, I am motivated, we will give the maximum to the end. I lost the Vuelta in 2012 when I was probably the strongest in the race, and in this Vuelta, I see a lot more equality among the favorites. We’ll see how it turns out. There is still another hard week to go.”

Results from stage 15