Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador won stage 16 of the Vuelta a España, a harrowing 160.5km route that tackled five categorized climbs and finished with a 16.5km ascent of La Farrapona.
Contador is clearly in control at the Vuelta, padding his GC lead, and facing only one challenge, from Sky’s Chris Froome.
Froome initiated the final move with 4.5km left on the summit finish. Contador was quick to follow, but Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) were left behind as the slope pitched up.
Together, the Briton and the Spaniard rode a hard, steady pace up the climb, catching early breakaway Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale).
However, the cooperation was bound to disintegrate eventually. Froome took a dig in the closing kilometers, but ultimately it was all Contador. The race leader attacked with one kilometer left, and the Sky rider had no reply to Contador’s vicious acceleration.
“Today was a good day for us,” Contador said. “I could stay with all the riders; it appears Froome is recovering. Sky set a strong rhythm. I saw an opportunity, and I took advantage of it … I saw that Sky was setting a rhythm; at the Dauphine, I learned that it can be hard to follow their rhythm. Valverde couldn’t follow, and that’s good for me. I could stay with Froome … It’s going to be complicated to control, I am happy, because [my] strength is good, recovering good.”
Stage 16’s action saw the battle for GC podium places tighten. Of course, Contador extended his overall lead, but Froome now sits in third, only three seconds behind Valverde, who is second. Rodríguez is 50 seconds behind the Briton in fourth. Fabio Aru (Astana) is in fifth, 3:38 behind Contador.
Breakaway starts on the first climb, ends in fisticuffs
After only 10 kilometers of racing, the peloton faced a category 1 ascent of the Alto de la Colladona.
BMC’s Rohan Dennis initiated a move that grew to include 13 riders. The Colladona took its toll. The break was reshuffled, and 12 riders emerged at the front after the 7.4km climb.
The leaders were: Rohan Dennis (BMC), Laurens ten Dam (Belkin), Luis León Sánchez (Caja Rural-RGA Seguros), Peter Kennaugh (Sky), Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale), Romain Sicard (Europcar), Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr), Wouter Poels (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), and Peio Bilbao (Caja Rural-RGA Seguros).
Next on the hilly menu for the day’s stage was a category 2 climb of the Cordal, a 7.6km mountain with an average gradient of 5.5 percent. Then, in short order, the race was sent up the category 1 climb of Alto de la Cobertoria.
Back in the peloton, Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was in difficulty on the Cobertoria. His teammates rallied to help pace him up the climb to defend his sixth-place GC position.
Trek Factory Racing’s Fabian Cancellara climbed away from the field on the category 1 ascent, hoping to bridge to the breakaway. He rode the Cobertoria descent alone, but the former time trial world champion was unable to chase to the front. The peloton reabsorbed his move with 45km to go.
At the start of the 10.1km Puerto de San Lorenzo climb, there was discord in the breakaway. Rovny and Brambilla came to blows. It appeared that the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider was upset that Rovny was disrupting the pacemaking.
Back in the peloton, Urán was dropped again. Katusha’s work on the front was taking its toll on the day’s penultimate climb. Soon, Urán was 1:20 behind the red jersey group. At the end of the day, Urán would fall from the top-10 overall.
“I’ve struggled with bronchitis for five or six days now,” Uran said. “Yesterday I suffered a lot, but today was by far the worst. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought about stopping already in the first climb. The easiest thing to do would be to abandon the race, but my teammates surrounded me and they helped me, step-by-step, catch the peloton again.”
At the front, the break had shattered. De Marchi and Brambilla crested the 4,419-foot summit, leading the race. Contador’s group reached the top of the climb 3:02 behind the lead duo.
On the descent, Poels bridged to the two leaders. Their advantage was 2:57 with 20km – and a massive ascent of Lagos de Somiedo – remaining.
Soon, Brambilla and Rovny were ejected from the race for the fight.
This left Poels and de Marchi alone at the front. De Marchi then attacked and carried on alone with 11.6km left in the stage.
De Marchi’s advantage was 1:28 with 10 kilometers left. Sky drove the pace in the GC group. However, the Cannondale rider’s gap was holding at 1:32, with six kilometers left on the final category 1 climb.
Froome vs. Contador
With 4.5km left, Froome and Contador made their intentions clear. With a terrific turn of speed, the Briton snapped the elastic, and only the race leader, Contador, could follow.
Valverde and Rodríguez were dropped. Soon, Fabio Aru (Cannondale) bridged to the two Spanish chasers.
De Marchi was caught with three kilometers to go. He tried valiantly to stay with the two leaders, but was dropped.
Aru was also in difficulty. Valverde and Rodríguez rid themselves of the young Italian inside of the final three kilometers.
Froome drove the pace again with 2.5km left, but his Spanish rival was right on his wheel.
The lead duo had a 33-second advantage over the two chasers.
Aru fought on, sticking with Valverde and Rodríguez, despite the fatigue from riding in the break all day.
When the leaders saw the red kite, they had a 45-second gap over the chase.
Then, Contador again showed his class. The race leader made a decisive move, pedaling out of the saddle with the vicious intensity that he is known for. Froome could not follow.
At the finish, Froome crossed the line 14 seconds behind the winner.
“When Froome has a change of pace it is difficult to follow him but I managed to do it and I knew Valverde and Purito were behind so it could be an important day for me,” said Contador. “What gives me more reassurance is that I am recovering well, I have the power in my legs despite the [crash in the Tour] I suffered and now we have a rest day ahead of us that we need to make the most of.”
De Marchi had a strong kick in the final kilometer to take third, 48 seconds behind. Valverde was 53 seconds adrift in fourth, missing out on valuable time bonuses at the line. Rodríguez rounded out the top five, 57 seconds back.
Tuesday will be the Vuelta’s second rest day. Then, racing restarts in earnest on Wednesday with one last flat stage for the sprinters, then two summit finishes — on Thursday and Saturday — before stage 21’s final time trial in Santiago de Compostela.