Return of the King: Contador wins a Vuelta battle that goes down to the wire
For Alberto Contador, anything less than victory at the 2012 Vuelta a España would have been unacceptable. Contador’s road back from his controversial clenbuterol ban was intensely personal, just as it was incredibly vital to Spanish cycling. As the Spanish economy teetered on collapse, the Vuelta needed Contador just as much as he needed the win.
The “Pistolero del Pinto” remains Spain’s top cyclist, despite sitting out much of 2012 due to his backdated two-year racing ban.
Spanish fans and media could not care less. They love Contador because he attacks — and more often than not, he wins. Despite having less than a week of racing in his legs, Contador picked up right where he left off, attacking straight out of the gate in his first grand tour since having his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d’Italia victories stripped away. Publicly, Contador said anger and revenge didn’t fuel him. Yeah, right.
“Alberto wants to win the Vuelta more than anything,” said Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank teammate Benjamín Noval. “That’s all he’s been training for.” But something strange was happening as a climb-heavy Vuelta unfolded across a spectacular course in northern Spain. At Arrate in the Basque Country, then Andorra, and again at Cuitu Negru in Asturias, Contador’s once-lethal attacks lacked their knockout punch. Rather than leaving his rivals choking on his fumes, his rivals seemed to have his number. More than two weeks into the Vuelta, Contador was exasperated.
The expected challenge from Chris Froome (Sky) petered out due to the Tour runner-up’s tiring legs, but another rival perplexed Contador. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was carefully tending a 28-second margin with just five days left to race. “If I can take the red leader’s jersey to Bola del Mundo, perhaps I can begin to dream of winning this Vuelta,” said Rodríguez at his rest-day press conference.
“I know Alberto is capable of anything. We must remain vigilant.” Perhaps Contador and Saxo-Tinkoff boss Bjarne Riis were taking notes. At that point in the Vuelta, Rodríguez was able to answer each of Contador’s attacks. The climbs were so steep — the Mirado de Ezaro in stage 13 featured ramps as steep as 30 percent — that the Vuelta was almost like a series of Flèche Wallonne finishes stacked one after another. Contador couldn’t shake Rodríguez on the steeps, and then, adding insult to injury, “Purito” would counter with morale-boosting jabs to pick up valuable finish-line time bonuses. Time was running out for Contador.
He knew that if he waited until the final climb at Bola del Mundo on the penultimate stage, another brutally hard climb, ideal for Rodríguez’s power jets, it might be too late. Little did anyone know that the easiest climb of the 10 summit finales in a wild, thoroughly entertaining Vuelta would set the trap for Rodríguez’s demise and provide the springboard for Contador’s rebirth.
Froome’s hard lessons
The 67th Vuelta started with the highly anticipated showdown between Contador and Froome, the first time the two have squared off as GC contenders.
Long before Rodríguez emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 for Contador, it was Froome who posed the biggest threat. Hot off second at the Tour and bronze in the Olympic time trial, Froome was quietly boasting he was coming to the Vuelta to “improve on last year’s result.” Last year Froome finished second by an excruciating 13 seconds to Juanjo Cobo (who would serve as a waterboy at Movistar after fading from contention).
The tall, frail, Kenyanborn rider seemed oddly out of place among the Spanish-heavy Vuelta, where Contador, Rodríguez, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) would hog the center of the race. Froome was relishing his chance to lead Team Sky outright. Tour champ Bradley Wiggins was racing the Tour of Britain and staying clear of Spain, giving Froome an open shot to make a run for victory. Froome’s inexperience in the hot seat soon became evident in what erupted as the nastiest dispute of the entire race. With strong crosswinds buffeting the peloton in stage 4, Team Sky pressed to the front. According to riders who saw it in the front row, it was the surging mass of Sky riders cutting across the nose of the bunch that provoked a crash right at the front of the pack.
Among the nearly 25 riders hitting the ground was race leader Valverde. Sky had already made its surge to break the pack into echelons and got help from Katusha and BMC. Chaos soon erupted when it became obvious that Valverde was on the ground and was isolated four groups back. None of Sky’s top brass was at the race. David Brailsford and Sean Yates were cooling their jets after directing the team to Tour glory.
Manning the lead sport director’s car was inexperienced ex-pro Nicolas Portal. A nice guy, Portal soon found himself the subject of ire from Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzue after Valverde ceded 55 seconds and the leader’s jersey.
“What they did today was cowardly,” Unzue seethed. “Not only did they provoke the crash, they attacked when the race leader was down. It was unsportsmanlike at best. I am disgusted.” Neither Froome nor Portal had the heft of influence in the bunch to make the call to ease up on the gas. But no one else did either. Quietly in the same move were Rodríguez and Contador, who avoided the growing media firestorm that was directed at Froome. Froome sharply defended the team’s action the next morning, telling Velo, “Crashes happen in echelons. If we had not taken the initiative, then someone else would have and it would have been us who were on the back foot.”
The fatigue of a long season soon became evident. Froome was staying close in the opening climbs, but he was slowly losing ground. Over the course of the second week, Froome would stay in second place, but lose 30 seconds to Rodríguez on time bonuses and late-stage summit kicks.
“I can feel my legs don’t have the same punch they did in July,” Froome confided. “I suppose that’s natural. I haven’t had a true block of training since June.” Froome was still holding out hope. He survived the first 10 days hanging in second place, just 53 seconds behind Rodríguez and a few precious seconds ahead of Contador and Valverde going into the Vuelta’s lone individual time trial.
The lumpy 40km course should have catapulted Froome into the leader’s jersey. Instead, it confirmed that he was far from his July form. Though he showed his class by finishing third in the stage, Froome slipped to third overall at 16 seconds back, with Rodríguez keeping red by one miraculous second to Contador. From there, Froome was just fighting to hang on to Madrid; he would eventually end up in fourth on GC.
Rather than be bitter or disappointed about the Vuelta, Froome tried to take positives out of three weeks of intense racing. “There are a huge amount of positives I can take away from this experience,” Froome told Velo. “Leading the team, that’s something I’ve never done before. And racing against Contador was interesting. Actually being on Contador’s wheel when he kicks, to feel what that’s like and then having to bridge to his wheel and knowing what that’s like. It’s something I would never be able to learn by watching on a screen or reading online. It’s something I had to feel for myself and it’s something that I will be able to use to prepare for the future.”
For Froome, the Vuelta turned into an albatross. Fourth, however, revealed how much class he truly carries in his engine. That battle that everyone was looking forward to at the Vuelta might come to fruition next July. Depending on the course, the Tour could well turn into a battle of Contador versus Froome. The Vuelta provided a few tantalizing clues about what lies in store.
Talansky finds his place
Jonathan Vaughters likes to call 23-year-old Andrew Talansky “the pit bull.” It’s something that JV started using last season and people picked up on via Twitter. When the young Garmin-Sharp rider stepped up to sign-in each morning, the race announcer beamed, “y aquí está el ‘pit bull’!” Talansky certainly sunk his teeth into the Vuelta GC, riding to a very respectable seventh place overall. His intensity and focus were evident throughout the race.
His lone “bad” day came on the Ezaro climb, with the steepest road in Europe that unfolded like an uphill sprint for 2km. Otherwise, he was wheel-to-wheel with the biggest names in the peloton.
His first GC push started off on the wrong foot when Garmin-Sharp botched the opening team time trial. Spanish sprinter Koldo Fernández took out Thomas Dekker and the Kreder brothers. Talansky and Johan Van Summeren were at the front of the line and had to come to a complete stop to wait for riders to regroup. Talansky was 1:28 off the back after 11km of racing.
Despite his young age, Talansky revealed a strength of character and maturity during the Vuelta that will serve him well as he continues to develop into one of America’s top hopes for future grand tour success. He paced himself through the first half, battling into the top-25 going into the lone TT stage, eventually bouncing up to eighth overall. He would battle all the way to Madrid, even passing Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) up Bola del Mundo to capture seventh.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction,” Talansky said. “It’s been a really hard and trying three weeks, both physically and mentally. I endured situations that might have cracked me or made me stop completely just a year ago. It’s been a learning and eyeopening experience and it showed me what I am capable of.” Just how far Talansky can go is perhaps answered by looking at how far he’s come. In just his second pro season, he was second to Wiggins at the Tour of Romandie, he won his first European race with a stage and the overall at the Tour de l’Ain, and then led the team as outright captain to ride into the top-10 of a grueling Vuelta. Not bad for a 23-year-old.
Talansky believes he’s more than deserving of the role of protected team captain. His self-assuredness rubs some people the wrong way, but it’s just that kind of confidence and lack of intimidation that will serve him well in the coming years as a potential GC threat in grand tours. Tested and approved Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky capped a breakthrough season with a hard-fought seventh place ride in the Vuelta, showcasing the talents that make him one to watch for in future grand tours.
“I can see where I am compared to these guys like Contador and Rodríguez. I know their performance here is at a higher level than I am right now,” he told Velo. “I feel like in a couple of years, I will able to match that and do that over the course of three weeks. I am very excited about the future.” So is Garmin. They already have him locked in through 2014 and he’s all but assured of racing the Tour next year.
Purito’s last stand(s)
Fuente Dé is a gentle, winding road that climbs into the heart of the spectacular Picos de Europa mountain range. It’s not really a climb, but simply a series of dead-ends at the end of a box canyon that looks like Spain’s version of Yosemite National Park. A cable car carries hikers up onto the glacier-carved peaks from the head of the valley where the underrated stage 17 ended. But before that, the Vuelta remained in a logjam after three harrowing days of brutal racing.
The peloton had climbed more than 10,000 vertical meters in three brutal stages across the rugged and rural Cantabrian mountains. Tens of thousands of fans came out to cheer, and the Vuelta peloton delivered the goods. Rodríguez proved he had tactical canny when he patiently countered a Contador surge from 2km to go to the summit at Ancares in a short, but intense climbing route in stage 14.
Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank set a searing pace that seemed to cook Froome’s goose for good, but Rodríguez was just warming up. Contador attacked to gap everyone, but Rodríguez patiently picked his way back and won the stage to widen his lead. Up Lagos de Covadonga the following day, a breakaway stayed clear, and Contador tried yet again in vain to drop Rodríguez. Valverde’s GC hopes were revived, thanks to help from teammate Nairo Quintana, and the quartet crossed the line together. Rodríguez neutralized Contador yet again up Cuitu Negru, which finished up a narrow strip of asphalt laid across a ski run with ramps as steep as 26 percent. Spinning a 36×32, Contador couldn’t drop the stubborn Rodríguez.
Time was running out. A day after a rest day is never good for Rodríguez, and that’s something that Contador knew when he woke up for stage 17 to Fuente Dé. On paper, the stage didn’t look terribly troubling — a third-category and second-category climb with 50km to go were all that stood before the pack and the finish line.
Pro cycling is not as programmed, nor is it as calculated, as some cynics would believe. And what happened in the final 50km of stage 17 proved that modern, cleaner cycling can be just as exciting as anything Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault did in their respective heydays. Contador smelled blood when Rodríguez was gapped early in the first hour of the stage. Saxo Bank went hard at the front and it took everything Katusha had just to regroup the bunch midway through the stage.
“I knew something was cooking,” Rodríguez would later say. “Everyone was going crazy. I didn’t like the look of things at all.” Saxo Bank put Bruno Pires into the day’s main 11-man breakaway, which saw its lead reduced with pressure coming to the Cat. 3 Collado de Olzabal at 124km. Coming off the narrow descent, they put Jesus Hernández and Sergio Paulihno into a counterattack, with Movistar slotting in Beñat Inxtausti and Nairo Quintana.
Contador rolls 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 earpiece,” 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 it, they’ll come over you.’ I preferred to attack.”
Contador was racing on instinct, with confidence and a healthy dose of fear. He knew he couldn’t let Rodríguez get through the stage without at least testing him. It was flat from here to Bola del Mundo. It was now or never. What happened next was one of cycling’s greatest coups. In fact, the Spanish sports daily MARCA devoted a two-page story to the attack in the next day’s edition, comparing it to the greatest attacks in cycling history.
Contador pounced on the approach to the Cat. 2 Collado de Hoz at 135km. Rodríguez, who had already been gapped, seemed to hesitate. Valverde held back as well, with Contador quickly gaining 20 seconds on his rivals. The race blew apart. The stage was soon reduced to a fight, every man for himself, as more than two weeks of intense racing finally caught up with everyone.
“Contador attacked like a cannonball,” Talansky said. “That stage was one of the hardest of the Vuelta. People were just blowing up. Saxo Bank was sticking it to Purito.”
Froome and Rodríguez would soon get a taste of the Contador of old. At this point in the 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 attacks were proving ineffective. It was partly due to the incredibly steep roads, many with ramps above 20 percent, which heavily limited top-end speed.
The Fuente Dé climb was much better suited to Contador, who had the legs to crank the big ring up the climb. Driven by an almost manic desire to win his first stage and wrestle away the red jersey, Contador risked everything and kept going. His 20-second margin over the top 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. The real suffering was just beginning for Rodríguez, who was left with only one Katusha jersey beside him, 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 to help drive the wedge, collaborating over five kilometers that would prove decisive. Contador soon rode alone, riding into the virtual jersey and eventually winning the stage. Valverde counterattacked, with Quintana and Inxtausti waiting for him on the road, and came within six seconds of catching Contador.
But Contador had timed it just right. He turned his 28-second deficit into a 1:52 leading margin to Valverde, while Rodríguez sank to third at 2:28 back. “It was a bit of a kamikaze attack,” Contador said. “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.” His intuition proved correct. At Bola del Mundo three days later, Rodríguez was back at his best, bravely charging away from Contador in a vain attempt to win the stage and recapture his pride. Contador seemed to be pedaling squares, but he calculated his efforts to safely defend his red jersey.
“This victory is like a huge liberation,” said Contador, ever discreet about giving too much away. “I had huge pressure on me the past few months and winning this race proves I am still among the best in grand tours. I do not race to shut people’s mouths, but because it’s what I love to do.”
In the end, it was a thrilling, exciting Vuelta, with Contador coming out on top, but it was a new style of riding: tighter, harder to predict, and less controlled. The Vuelta got the winner it wanted and Contador won the grand tour he needed. Despite having two grand tours stripped by CAS, Contador said he still counts “all seven” of his grand tour victories. If this Vuelta is any indication, “King Contador” is back. Next stop: the Tour de France. A fresh Froome and determined Wiggins will be standing in his way to Paris. Time to strap in.
Ji Cheng (Argos-Shimano) became the first Chinese rider to start and finish a grand tour. He was last, 175th, at 4:32:35 behind Contador
Daniel Teklehaymanot (Orica- GreenEdge) became the first black African to start and finish a grand tour, arriving in Madrid in 146th at 3:18:46
Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) was the only rider to start and finish all three grand tours in 2012 …
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) confirmed his power as a top-level sprinter, winning five sprint stages during the Vuelta. The mountainous Vuelta course kept many of the top sprinters away from Spain, but Degenkolb proved he has the power and speed to win on any course
Philippe Gilbert (BMC) quieted critics with two stage victories for his first wins in 2012
Alejandro Valverde out-sprinted Joaquim Rodríguez in the final stage in Madrid to snatch away the points and combined jerseys. That gave Valverde four trips to the final podium, with second place overall as well as the team prize for Movistar, in his first grand tour since winning the 2009 Vuelta.