Vuelta a Espana

Cobo’s long, strange trip to Vuelta lead

Cobo, right, finished second to teammate Piepoli on stage 10 of the 2008 Tour de France. He was later awarded the stage win after Piepoli tested positive for CERA. Photo: Graham Watson | LEON, Spain (VN) — Juanjo Cobo wasn’t on anyone favorite’s list to win…

2008 Tour de France, stage 10. Piepoli and Cobo
Cobo, right, finished second to teammate Piepoli on stage 10 of the 2008 Tour de France. He was later awarded the stage win after Piepoli tested positive for CERA. Photo: Graham Watson |

LEON, Spain (VN) — Juanjo Cobo wasn’t on anyone favorite’s list to win the 2011 Vuelta a España, not even on the power rankings at his Geox-TMC squad, which was betting on Denis Menchov or Carlos Sastre to ride within range of the podium.

Now just six days from Madrid, Cobo is carrying a slender, 20-second lead to Chris Froome (Sky) and is on the verge of delivering a huge Vuelta surprise.

Cobo’s dramatic surge into the red leader’s jersey — fueled by two well-timed attacks on the Vuelta’s hardest summit finishes over the weekend — is even more surprising considering that just a few months ago he was seriously considering retirement.

Cobo abandoned the Vuelta a Asturias in April and simply stopped training. He wanted to quit the sport and become an electrician, but Joxean “Matxin” Fernández, who recruited Cobo out of the amateur ranks, encouraged him to get back on his bike.

“The results weren’t coming. I was going through a bad period. I wanted to quit cycling and move on with my life,” Cobo recounted. “It was Matxin who convinced me to finish out the season. I started to train quietly and got some good form in Burgos (in mid-August). Since then, I’ve felt better than I’ve felt in a long time.”

The 30-year-old Cobo was once one of Spain’s most laureled under-23 riders, but struggled in his first years as a pro. Cobo put on weight and didn’t make the sacrifices he needed to win at the pro level. Those close to Cobo say he’s prone to bouts of depression and a loss of motivation.

That started to change in 2007, when he won one of Europe’s most difficult stage races at the Tour of the Basque Country. More good results came in 2008, a season that quickly turned into a nightmare as his then-Saunier Duval team was kicked out of the Tour de France after star rider Riccardo Riccò tested positive for CERA. Cobo’s big ride that year was finishing second behind teammate Leonardo Piepoli up the Hautacam. Piepoli later tested positive for CERA as well, and Cobo was officially awarded the stage-win.

“They gave me the stage win at Tour, but I don’t consider it mine,” Cobo said after winning Sunday up the Angliru. “This is the biggest win of my career. It’s made all the sacrifices worth it.”

Somehow Fernández kept the core unit of his team together in the wake of the devastating double positive of Ricco and Piepoli. He cobbled together smaller sponsors and kept the team afloat through the 2009 season, when Cobo rode to an encouraging 10th overall at the Vuelta. Caisse d’Epagne (now Movistar) picked up Cobo for the 2010 season, but Cobo didn’t fare well beyond the confines of Fernández/Mauro Gianetti system.

Cobo raced poorly with Caisse d’Epagne and couldn’t even manage to finish the stage races he started, abandoning Paris-Nice, Critérium International, the Tour de Romandie, the Dauphiné and the Route du Sud. Cobo didn’t complain of an illness or injury, he simply couldn’t finish races to post results.

Back with Geox-TMC (the same core unit of the ill-fated Saunier Duval team), Cobo was equally unimpressive in the early part of the 2011 season.

“I wasn’t living up to expectations and I had a hard time dealing with that,” Cobo said. “That’s when I just wanted to give up on cycling. It’s my job, it’s what I do, but it’s not my passion.”

Although he couldn’t get through the Tour of Austria in July, Cobo was in the top 20 at the Clásica San Sebastián and was second to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) up the decisive mountain stage at the Vuelta a Burgos in August to finish on the podium with third overall. That gave him the confidence boost he needed to arrive at the Vuelta with his head screwed on straight.

Cobo’s fortunes at the Vuelta started to turn around after the 47km Salamanca time trial, when he was a solid 23rd at just over one-and-a-half minutes behind Bradley Wiggins (Sky). Team captain Menchov was still the focus of the top GC contenders and Cobo managed to start this weekend’s pair of decisive climbing stages at eighth overall at 1:28 back without too much pressure or expectations.

Cobo ripped up the Farrapona climb, uncorking an attack with less than 5km to go to take an important second-place, 12-second time bonus and gain 20 seconds on the chasing Wiggins and Froome. Cobo climbed into fourth overall at 55 seconds going into Sunday’s decisive battle up the Angliru.

Many were surprised Sunday when he had the strength to repeat the attacks on the even-steeper Angliru. Once again, he attacked with a ferocity not seen in Cobo in years. This time, there was nothing Froome and Wiggins could do.

“We knew the day before that he was strong and we knew he would be trying to make up time,” Froome said Monday. “When he went, we thought we’ll just keep him there and we’d bring him back slowly, but he just kept putting more and more time into us.”

Time bonuses have also played a huge factor in the GC battle. Cobo has earned 40 seconds in bonuses throughout the Vuelta while Froome and Wiggins are both on their “real” time. Without the bonuses, Froome would be leading.

For Cobo, the road to Madrid goes through his home region of Cantabria and a return to the Basque Country for the first time in more than 30 years. Wiggins and Froome vow to keep fighting, but Cobo and his Geox-TMC team will do everything they can to keep their man in red.

“The objective was to take time on Wiggins (on Sunday) and things turned out better than expected. We will defend (the jersey) to the death, but when you’re in the lead, things are easier,” Cobo said. “I’ve passed through some bad moments the past few months, but now I see things differently. You realize that hard work and sacrifice are worth it. This win makes up for the suffering that I’ve gone through on the bike.”

Cobo said three months ago he could have never imagined that he’d be leading the Vuelta. No one else three weeks ago could have imagined it either.