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A resurgent Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) launched a final push on the steeps of La Camperona to win stage 14 of the Vuelta a España on Saturday.
The Canadian was part of a big break, some two dozen riders strong, that went early in the 201km race from Santander to the mountaintop finish in the Montes de León.
And while Tinkoff-Saxo’s Oliver Zaugg was the man to make the first move that stuck en route to La Camperona, it was Hesjedal who made the one that counted, galloping past the Swiss on the final steeps to take the flowers.
Zaugg hung on for second, 10 seconds behind, with Imanol Erviti (Movistar) third at 30 seconds.
“It was all-in today. It was incredible on that last climb,” Hesjedal said. “This is why we do this. The energy you get from the fans is just incredible.”
Behind, the plot thickened in the GC battle as Chris Froome (Sky) launched a big push to the line that briefly caught out Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff).
Purito fought back, conceding only a second to the Sky captain at the finish, but Contador gave up seven seconds to Froome, who moved into third overall at the end of the day, 42 seconds down on second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who crossed 22 seconds behind the Kenya-born Brit.
“It was so steep, so hard, it was just incredible,” said Contador.
“I am very content with how the stage unfolded. Two riders took some time on me, but it was very little, and I took gains on everyone else, above all Valverde, so we have to be happy with that.”
Caja Rural-Seguros teammates David Arroyo Duran and Luis Leon Sanchez, with MTN-Qhubeka’s Jacques Janse Van Rensburg, were first to slip away from the break with 84km remaining. The two Caja Rural riders soon shed Van Rensburg and it was a two-man lead group off the front on the category-1 Puerto de San Glorio, a 20.9km climb averaging 5.8 percent, but with stretches that went twice that.
Behind, Omega Pharma-Quick Step went to the front of the peloton and pushed the pace on behalf of Rigoberto Uran, who began the day sitting third overall at 1:08. Contador immediately locked onto Uran’s wheel.
“The coming three stages will be decisive for the final GC,” Uran said at the start on Saturday. “Today I’ll be at the front in the last kilometers!”
The remnants of the break pulled the two Caja Rural riders back before the summit, with 70km remaining.
Sanchez jumped away once more to take top points at the KOM and move into the virtual lead in the mountains competition. Then a group of 12 began the sinuous descent leading to La Camperona.
The break was not working particularly well early on, and with 56km to race the GC group was just over four minutes behind. But the break did contain teammates for Contador, Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Valverde, and Rodriguez, and those gentlemen sat back and let Omega Pharma handle chasing duties, as did Froome.
As the day wore on the gap went out rather than down, and with 32km to go the break had more than six minutes over the chase. Omega stepped back, and Tinkoff stepped up.
Their deficit remained substantial, however, and as the break began the final climb in became clear that it would select the day’s winner.
The final climb began gradually, ramped up to nearly 9 percent, and then eased off a bit before serving up stretches of double-digit grade en route to the line.
Hesjedal tried to get something going early in the ascent, but couldn’t escape the others. Romain Sicard (Europcar) came forward next, followed by teammates Adam Hansen and Bart De Clercq (Lotto Belisol).
Zaugg was the guy who finally made the critical move, riding away from the others as the road tilted sharply upward. But Hesjedal fought back, and Zaugg never saw him coming through the raucous crowds and camera motos clogging the narrow pitch.
The rangy Canadian surged past Zaugg and took the stage win, as behind, a revived Froome thundered past Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde, hunting elusive seconds on the overall.
But Contador hung tough, and continues to lead Valverde by 42 seconds, while Froome slipped onto the virtual podium at 1:13.
Hesjedal was relieved to finally get a stage victory.
“The GC went out the window early in the race, but I didn’t get too upset, because we knew we had Dan [Martin] there,” he said. “I wanted to win a stage. I had a good shot in stage 7, but I crashed.” Martin crossed 15th at 3:21 and is holding down 10th overall at 4:37.
As for Contador, he remained confident but wary following Froome’s late acceleration.
“Froome? We knew he would be a threat. It’s clear he’s still alive,” he said.
“I like Covadonga [Sunday’s finale]. We’ll see how the race develops. I am sure there they will be attacking me from all sides.”