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LEON, Spain (VN) – On the easiest climb of a Vuelta a España full of brutally steep roads, Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) purged all of his angst and powered into the red leader’s jersey in an epic day of racing.
Winning for the first time since he was served a controversial two-year ban for clenbuterol, Contador made a daring, old-school attack with more than 50km to go in the 17th stage from Santander to Fuente Dé, a day when few expected major fireworks.
With the stunning Picos de Europa as the backdrop, Saxo Bank played the perfect tactics to wrestle away the red jersey from the stubborn Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
After being stymied on the 25-percent ramps of Cuitu Negru on Monday, Contador used his big ring to distance Rodríguez on the relatively easy Cat. 2 Fuente Dé climb, which featured an average grade of four percent.
It was pure Contador — raw, unbridled attacking —and he confirmed yet again that he is the maestro of three-week grand tour racing.
“It was a bit of a kamikaze move,” an emotional Contador said at the finish line. “I decided to risk it all. After all I’ve been through, this means a lot to me. I made a big step toward victory today.”
Contador turned a 28-second deficit into a 1:52 leading margin over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who also rode brilliantly to bounce ahead of Rodríguez, whose fortunes sank just as fast as he slid backwards on the GC, dropping to third, at 2:28 back.
Rodríguez, who bravely fended off Contador’s endless string of futile attacks over three days of epic racing over the weekend to give him hope of finally winning a grand tour, cracked on a day when few expected major drama.
“Purito” could only tip his hat to the “Pistolero,” who finally delivered the coup de grace that just about everyone was expecting to come.
“To tell the truth, I didn’t expect this today, but when I saw how Saxo Bank was riding today, I knew they were up to something,” a gracious Rodríguez said. “What Alberto did today was something spectacular. Sure, I will be sad about it later, but today we lived something for the history books. And he did it dos cojones.”
Indeed, Contador’s long-distance attack and the perfectly executed team tactics, both by Saxo Bank and Movistar, coupled with comeback stories from controversial bans for both Contador and Valverde, only heightened the drama on a day when most observers were overlooking the potential damage that could be done.
The three-climb, 187.3km stage was deceptive. While it looked easy on paper, there was never a flat section once the course turned into the Cantabrian mountains. Back-to-back climbs sandwiched within 20km of each other with 50km to go is where Saxo Bank laid the trap.
Contador’s squad put Bruno Pires into the day’s main 11-man breakaway, which saw its lead reduced with pressure coming from behind at the Cat. 3 Collado de Olzabal, 124km into the day. Coming off the narrow descent, the team put Jesus Hernández and Sergio Paulihno into a counter-attack, with Movistar slotting in Beñat Inxtausti and Nairo Quintana, making it four riders for Contador and Valverde up the road.
Contador was ready to roll the dice.
“I told the guys on the radio, ‘full gas!’ That’s all I wanted to say, because sometimes teams listen in on your ear-piece,” Contador said. “When I attacked, I had the devil in one ear, saying, ‘attack, attack!’ Then I had the angel on the other side, saying, ‘wait, don’t risk, they’ll come over you.’ I preferred to attack.”
Contador pounced on the approach to the Cat. 2 Collado de Hoz, 135km into the stage. Rodríguez, who had already been gapped earlier in the race, seemed to hesitate. Valverde held back as well, with Contador quickly gaining 20 seconds on his rivals.
The race quickly blew apart. Chris Froome (Sky), who started this Vuelta with hopes of improving on his second place from 2011, was quickly gapped. The race was soon reduced to every man for himself as more than two weeks of intense racing finally caught up.
Froome would eventually lose 4:58 and forfeit any hopes of reaching the podium, though he did retain fourth place overall.
“It’s been interesting watching Contador attack during this Vuelta,” Froome told VeloNews during Tuesday’s rest day. “He makes intense attacks, these short, intense bursts. No one else races like him.”
Froome and Rodríguez would soon get a taste of the Contador of old. So far through this Vuelta, it seemed like Contador was a step off his top game. He could attack, but he couldn’t hold the speed for long and the accelerations were proving ineffective. It was partly due to the incredibly steep roads, which almost limit top-end speed because of ramps topping 20 percent.
Wednesday’s less-steep Fuente Dé better suited Contador, who had the legs to crank the big ring up the climb. Driven by an almost manic desire to win a stage and wrestle away the red jersey, Contador risked everything and kept going.
His 20-second margin over the top of the Hoz climb soon grew to minutes. Contador linked up with Paulinho and Hernández, who went full gas and opened a gap of 45 seconds to Valverde and Rodríguez and 2:45 to Froome, Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), who would finish 18th, at 4:48 back, and slip back one spot on GC to eighth.
The real suffering was just beginning for Rodríguez, who was left with only one Katusha jersey, Alberto Losada.
Contador kept pouring it on, hitting the 20km smooth climb to Fuente Dé by charging away from the breakaway. He found an ally in former Astana teammate Paolo Tiralongo, to whom Contador gifted a stage in last year’s Giro. Tiralongo paid back the favor by helping drive the wedge, collaborating over five kilometers that would prove decisive.
With the help of Tiralongo, Contador quickly had two minutes on Rodríguez and Valverde with 14km to go.
Contador went alone with about 12km to go, already in the virtual leader’s jersey. Then Valverde counter-attacked, dropping Rodríguez and quickly making time on Contador, who had been riding alone at the front for more than 20km.
Up the road, Intxausti and Quintana were ordered to stop and wait for Valverde, who was coming like a freight train. Rodríguez could only try to limit the bleeding.
“They called us off, which was fine, because the entire day’s tactic was to help Valverde. We almost had to come to a complete stop and put our foot down,” Intxausti said. “When Alejandro came up to us, we all knew immediately what we had to do. He was flying.”
Just as fast, Contador’s lead dwindled as Valverde powered forward, driven by both the desire to drop Rodríguez as well as to try to win the stage. With 3km to go, Valverde was suddenly just 30 seconds back. Rodríguez was three minutes back, his dreams of victory fading.
Valverde would slip across the line second, at just six seconds back, but was more than content to slot into second place in his second grand tour since winning the 2009 Vuelta.
“I never thought I would catch Contador, but with three kilometers to go, I went as hard as I could,” Valverde said. “It would be hard to better the end result. It’s been a great day for us. I am sorry for Purito, but that’s racing.”
An emotional Contador surged across the line, pumping both of his fists in the air three times with an emotional scream that came from deep inside. There was no showboating or pistol-shooting. This victory meant everything in the world to Contador, who continues to maintain his innocence from his divisive clenbuterol case that saw him stripped of the 2010 Tour de France title as well as the 2011 Giro d’Italia.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport took those two titles from Contador, but on Wednesday, Contador executed a perfect, long-distance attack to put himself in the prime position to win the 2012 Vuelta going into the final four days of racing.
“It was an attack I made on instinct. It was improvised. I think I will remember this day forever,” Contador said. “Not many people were counting on me, but I decided to make the play. Being second was ok, but I want to win.”
Contador confirmed yet again that he is an attacking cyclist and few can match him when he’s on top of his game.
Despite his controversial past, the Spaniard remains hugely popular in Spain. While many outsiders might question his performances, inside Spain, Contador is helping to elevate cycling and put it back on the front pages. His daring attack Wednesday will certainly generate plenty of copy. Many were already calling it one of the most epic stages in recent Vuelta history.
The victory helped erase what’s been a tortuous road over the two-and-a-half years since he tested positive for traces of clenbuterol during the second rest day of the 2010 Tour. Many couldn’t help but notice Contador’s stirring attack came a day after the second rest day at the 2012 Vuelta. Contador has vowed off eating beef for two years now. Everyone’s hoping there will be no asterisk next to this one.