In the end, it was the two riders expected to battle for the GC at the Tour de France in July who were, instead, battling for the GC at the Vuelta a España in September.
One final climb remained for two of the best climbers in the sport — two riders who exited the Tour with injury, and returned in August for redemption in Spain.
And ultimately, Spaniard Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) proved to be too strong for Sky’s Chris Froome.
The 2013 Tour de France champion, who started stage 20 with a 1:19 deficit to Contador, tried several times on the steep 12km climb up Puerto de Ancares, the final summit of this year’s Vuelta, to dislodge the race leader.
After an attack by fourth-place GC rider Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Froome put in the first of many attacks with 6km remaining.
Though Froome was able to shed third-placed rider Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and fifth-placed rider Fabio Aru (Astana), Contador matched every acceleration Froome put forth; “El Pistolero” then attacked inside the final kilometer, winning, alone, 16 seconds ahead of Froome.
“I’m thrilled with another stage win,” Contador said. “I’ve won the two ‘queen stages,’ you cannot ask for more. Froome has the strength to change rhythm, and it’s not easy to follow. Fortunately, my legs are still good and I could catch him. Now I just need to stay focused tomorrow and make sure nothing unfortunate happens.”
The top five riders on the stage mirrored the top five overall, with Valverde finishing 57 seconds down on Contador; Rodriguez was 1:18 off the winning time.
With only a 9.7km time trial remaining, Contador’s third Vuelta victory looks secure, his lead over Froome a comfortable 1:37.
Likewise, Froome looks assured to finish second overall at the Vuelta for a second time, to match his result at the 2011 race, won by Juan Jose Cobo. Froome leads Valverde by 58 seconds.
“We still have to do to the [time trial], but with the differences we have now, unless I have some sort of disaster, the Vuelta is won,” Contador said. “The tactic was easy — quote, unquote — follow Froome’s wheel, but you still had to have the legs, because he was super strong. I could use the time differences to my advantage.”
Sky takes control; Rodriguez attacks
Earlier in the day, a four-man break opened up a lead of more than 10 minutes after the first 100km of racing, but both Sky and Astana led the chase.
The escapees began the penultimate climb, the 10km Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas, with just under three minutes on the peloton and 30km remaining.
Though it was Contador in the leader’s jersey and not Froome, Sky’s Luke Rowe, Vasil Kiryienka, Peter Kennaugh, Kanstantsin Sivtsov, and Philip Deignan set a punishing tempo at the front of the peloton on the Folgueiras de Aigas, reminiscent of the team’s dominance of the 2012 and 2013 Tours.
By the time they reached the summit, the lead was down to just 43 seconds, with the final, hors categorie Puerto de Ancares looming ahead after a rapid descent.
Polish rider Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) resisted the chase the longest, but once he was caught with 10km left, Sky’s relentless pace at the front of the peloton had whittled down the leading group to less than 20 riders.
Deignan dug in over a brutally steep section with an 18 percent gradient that shredded the leaders down to nine riders before Rodriguez sprung out of the group with 9km left.
That attack saw the leaders split again with only the top five in the standings left fighting for the stage victory.
Rodriguez eked his lead out to 30 seconds, but Froome then launched an attack that dropped first Aru and then Valverde, although Contador clung on grimly.
Froome reeled in Rodriguez and eventually his constant pushing dropped the Spaniard, yet Contador stuck firmly to Froome’s rear wheel.
“There are riders who are better than me, but I had to try,” Rodriguez said. “I was there, like I have been in all the finales, and I gave it my all. I tried to attack from far away. I couldn’t pull it off. It’s the first Vuelta since 2010 that I go home empty-handed, and I cannot imagine I will win the time trial tomorrow. I am realistic. I was at my level, with riders like Froome and Contador in top form, they are better than me.”
Froome accelerated five or six times, but Contador was equal to everything and eventually had the kick to take the stage win and 10 bonus seconds as well.
“We tried everything to drop Alberto. The guys gave their all today, they did an amazing job to make the race difficult and give me the chance to make the difference on the final climb and put Alberto in difficulty,” Froome said. “I gave everything on the final climb but unfortunately I found myself towing him. But that’s cycling. I tried everything to drop him but he was stronger than me. But given the condition I was in when I arrived at this race it would be difficult for me to be happier. I came here with limited ambitions. I didn’t know if I’d be fighting for the top 10, the podium or overall victory. I’m really delighted to finish second. That will motivate me a lot for the future.”
With just Sunday’s 9.7km time trial left, Contador is virtually certain to claim overall victory in Santiago de Compostella, adding to his Vuelta triumphs in 2008 and 2012. It will be his sixth Grand Tour victory after wins at the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, as well as the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
Likewise, Froome and Valverde also look certain to hold their podium spots as well.
“I never felt like there was a real threat on my podium finish today,” Valverde said. “I had good legs and everything was more or less under control through the whole climb. When Purito jumped away I kept my pace in the pursuit, and then, when Froome attacked, I took sort of a sprint to save some energy and not waste it afterwards with another pursuit to chase them back. However, Froome’s pace change was really strong and there was a point when I had to stop and keep going on my own pace. The problem is, you never know if it’s the time to stop following them, and actually they two, Froome and Alberto, stopped with their action just ten seconds after.
“I still kept my own pace and managed the gap until the end. When Purito dropped I was able to accelerate and catch him, and when I did, I knew the podium was more or less done – in the final slopes, as I saw it was impossible to get back to the lead, I put an easier pace. From tomorrow’s TT, I know more or less what you can see on the profile, though it’s also known that there might be rain, and thus it might become more risky. It will surely be beautiful for the fans to enjoy with us. We can make it to the overall podium again tomorrow; it would be my sixth time in the Vuelta.”