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Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) surged back into the overall lead in Wednesday’s climbing stage into Andorra just a day after losing it on time bonuses.
This time, the Basque climber left no doubt that he could be the man to beat as the Vuelta a España, taking his second stage victory and recapturing the lead with an impressive showing up the final ramps of the 208.4km 11th stage in the Vuelta’s first mountaintop finish.
Antón gapped overnight leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) with 3km to go in the final, 10km climb to the Valnord/Pal summit and then edged past dogged veteran Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) to win. Antón won three seconds ahead of Mosquera and took a 45-second lead on Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) in the overall.
“I’m on a cloud right now, like a little kid,” Antón said. “I wasn’t really thinking about the stage victory today, but rather to take time on the rivals behind me. Then I could see that Mosquera could be reeled in and I pushed harder. I’ve only won smaller races, but right now I’m in the lead and we’ll see how long I can keep it.”
Rodríguez, who took the jersey Tuesday on time bonuses, couldn’t match the pace in the final three kilometers in a blistering stage and crossed the line 17th at 59 seconds back and slipped to fourth at 1:17 back.
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) was solid on the long climb and crossed the line 11th at 41 seconds back to slot into 11th at 2:53 back while Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) ceded 1:41 to cross the line 24th and settled into 14th at 3:27 back.
Mosquera tries again
A two-man no-hope breakaway peeled away against strong headwinds in a long, five-and-a-half hour stage that turned into the mountains of Andorra for the Vuelta’s first summit finish.
Katusha put its men on the front, but the two leaders built up a 14-minute gap. Rabobank later set a blistering pace in the closing hour of racing that set the stage for the big battle up the 10km final push to the finish line. The only problem was that team captain Denis Menchov was among the first to fade once the pack hit the base of the climb. Menchov lost more than five minutes and faded out of the top-30 overall.
The first real attack came when working-man hero Mosquera laid down the hammer with about 5km to go, drawing out Vincezo Nibali (Liquigas) and overnight leader Rodríguez. The trio quickly gapped Antón, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) and the rest of the GC contenders.
Mosquera set a blistering pace, putting Rodríguez into the red who simply couldn’t match the pace with 3km to go. Rodríguez faded back to the GC group and dropped to fourth overall at 1:17 back.
Mosquera, meanwhile, looked to have an elusive stage victory in his grip until Antón came back to life with 2km to go. The Basque climber dropped Schleck, roared past Rodríguez and the struggling Nibali and eventually caught Mosquera. With less than one kilometer to go, Mosquera couldn’t match the pace and drifted across the line just three seconds arrears.
It was another close call for underdog Mosquera, whose family runs a small woodmill in Spain’s northwestern Galicia.
“I cannot say that I am not happy. The sensations were good. I decided to go for it and just maintain my rhythm. Igor was just a little stronger than me, and I couldn’t stay with him,” Mosquera said. “Sure, I wanted to win a stage finally, one more time second, some day it will happen. I am looking on the bright side, I know that I am going well on my terrain and there are a lot of mountain stages ahead of us. This mountain isn’t the hardest one we’ll face and the mountains of Asturias are very difficult.”
Behind the leading duo, riders were trying to limit the damage. Xavier Tondo (Cervélo) surged out in the final kilometer to cross the line third at nine seconds back and climb into third, confirming that he’s a real threat for the podium.
Cervélo teammate Carlos Sastre lacked the explosiveness in his legs that he had the other day up the Xorret de Catí climb and ceded more ground to slot into 12th at 3:03 back.
“There was a lot of wind all day, and the sensations weren’t the best today, but Tondo did a sensational stage,” Sastre said. “I tried to limit the damage and I counted on Iñigo Cuesta, who was staying close to me.”
Antón hopes to hold on
Things should settle down for the next few days, with the next major showdown coming in the mountains of Asturias next weekend in northern Spain. Three consecutive summit finishes should go a long way toward crowning the 2010 Vuelta champion.
Antón realizes that nothing is decided, especially with dangerous time trialists such as Nibali (2nd at 45sec); Marzio Bruseghin (6th at 1:57) and Ruben Plaza (7th at 2:07).
“I am content with how I feel right now, but nothing is won yet,” Antón said. “The hard part of the Vuelta is still ahead of us and the time trial will be decisive. The next few days should give the sprinters a chance to help us control the race and we’ll see how things go in Asturias.”
Time bonuses are certainly playing a big part in this year’s Vuelta. With two stage victories, Antón has won 40 seconds on bonuses against his other GC rivals.
The 65th Vuelta continues Thursday with the 172.5km 12th stage from Andorra to Lleida. The stage rolls out of the Pyrénées, tackling a moderate second-category climb at 54.3km before hitting the flats to Lleida. It should be a day for the sprinters if a breakaway group does not manage to stay clear. Mark Cavendish leads the points competition but has yet to win a stage, so expect to see HTC-Columbia put it train on the rails to set up a sprint.
- 1 Igor Anton (EUS)
- 2 Ezequiel Mosquera (XAC) +0:03
- 3 Xavier Tondo (CTT) +0:10
- 4 Rigoberto Uran (GCE) +0:18
- 5 Vincenzo Nibali (LIQ) +0:23
- 1. Igor Anton, Euskaltel-Euskadi, 47h 37′ 15”
- 2. Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas-Doimo, at 45
- 3. Xavier Tondo, Cervélo TestTeam, at 1:04
- 4. Joaquin Rodriguez, Team Katusha, at 1:17
- 5. Ezequiel Mosquera, Xacobeo Galicia, at 1:29