It’s been a long time coming, but Basque climber Igor Antón finally scored another mountaintop victory on Spanish roads in Friday’s summit finish at the Vuelta a Castilla y León ahead of pre-race favorite Alberto Contador (Astana).
Antón, 27, rode smartly in the final kilometers of the grueling Alto de Morredero, attacking out of leading four-man group that included Contador with 1.5km to go to win the 158.8km third stage and take the overall leader’s jersey.
“I had a lot of pressure to win another stage like this and I am content for myself and my team,” said Antón, who won 13 seconds ahead of the Contador group. “I had a lot of anger within me today and I put everything into the pedals.”
Antón was one of Spain’s hot new climbers when he won a breakout victory at the Calar Alto summit in the 2006 Vuelta a España in his second season as a pro, but has since struggled with injuries and pressures to live up to expectations.
On a cool, rainy and windy climb up the long, grueling Morredero climb in the desolate mountains of northwest Spain, Antón played it just right to win out an elite group that included Contador, former Tour de France King of the Mountains winner Mauricio Soler (Caisse d’Epargne) and Xacobeo-Galicia’s Ezequiel Mosquera.
It was up to Contador to follow the attacks, first by Mosquera and then by Antón. Soler bridged across from a group that included pre-race favorite Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who couldn’t keep pace and forfeited more than one minute to the Spanish mountain goats.
Soler caught the leading trio with just under 4km to go and barely waited to catch his breath before unleashing an attack. That drew out Contador and opened the battle that was basically three against one.
Mosquera and Soler took turns attacking, forcing Contador to shut down the moves. Antón shot clear with just under 1.5km to go and quickly opened a promising gap.
Contador tried in vain to counter-attack, but stiff winds stifled his effort to chase down Antón. Soler crossed the line second ahead of Contador and Mosquera at 13 seconds back.
“I knew it would be a complicated finale with three other riders. I was thinking at one point of attacking on my own, but there was a lot of wind,” Contador said. “In the end, I preferred to ride a little more conservative and think about tomorrow.”
Antón will take a formidable 13-second lead into Saturday’s decisive 15.1km individual time trial on rolling course around Ponferrada on Saturday.
On paper, Contador is the better time trialist, but Antón promises to give it his all in a bid to deliver another upset as Contador tries to become the first rider to win the Castilla y León tour for a third time.
“This is one of the best wins of my career, to win ahead of the No. 1 rider in the world,” Antón said. “We’ll see about the time trial tomorrow, I will try to win the overall, but right now, the goal was to win this stage and that’s been fulfilled.”
The five-day Castilla y León tour concludes Sunday with a rolling stage favoring sprinters to Santiago de Compostela.