Velo International Most Dramatic Day of Racing: Stage 17, Vuelta a Espana; International Comeback of the Year: Alexander Vinokourov

Stage 17 of the Vuelta is our Most Dramatic Day of Racing, while Alexander Vinokourov made our Comeback of the Year

Editor’s note: The January 2013 issue of Velo magazine, which is on newsstands now, is our 25th annual awards issue. Our 2012 Cyclist of the Year was announced on November 29; we’ll be rolling out various other award winners throughout the month of December.

International Most Dramatic Day of Racing: Alberto Contador, Stage 17, Vuelta a España

Forget Philippe Gilbert’s attack on the Cauberg to win the rainbow jersey. Ditto for Tom Boonen’s long-distance raid at Paris-Roubaix. Unless you loved time trials and the dynamics of controlled racing, this year’s Tour de France was largely a three-week snoozer. Even Ryder Hesjedal’s final-day, come-from-behind historic win at the Giro d’Italia didn’t stand up.

With 10 uphill finishes and a down-to-the-wire battle, the most exciting race of the year was the Vuelta a España. And that battle came to a head in the season’s most thrilling day of racing.

It came on stage 17, a day with a relatively easy profile that finished with a long, but gentle, six-percent gradient up the second-category summit at Fuente Dé. At the start line, people were shrugging, “not much is going to happen today.”

Less than five hours later, no one could believe what they had just witnessed.

Two weeks into the Vuelta, things were not going as well as Alberto Contador had hoped. In his comeback grand tour following his controversial clenbuterol ban, the “Pistolero” couldn’t shake Joaquim “Purito” Rodríguez, who was stubbornly fending off Contador’s relentless attack in a trio of brutal climbing stages across the northern mountains of Spain.

Rodríguez carried a slender 28-second lead into the stage and seemed to grow more confident with each passing day. With only five days to Madrid, Purito dared to dream of winning his first grand tour.

When Rodríguez was dropped early in the stage on an unrated climb, Contador quickly smelled an opportunity. Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank sent two riders up the road and then Contador attacked over a short but steep second-category climb with 50km to go.

“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.”

It was classic Contador, taking the race by its horns and making it his own. Rodríguez cracked, losing the wheel as Contador disappeared up the long, winding second-category summit to Fuente Dé. A 10-second gap grew to 45 seconds then to two minutes.

Contador poured it on and barely fended off a counter-attacking Alejandro Valverde to win the stage. With the time he extracted on the Vuelta’s easiest climb, he eventually claimed overall victory.

It was Contador at his most cunning; and he proved again, regardless of whether you love or hate him, that he always makes any race he’s part of that much more interesting.

International Comeback of the Year: Alexander Vinokourov, Olympic road race

When Alexander Vinokourov was carted off the road at the 2011 Tour de France with a broken pelvis and femur, it appeared the steely Kazakh veteran had finally reached the end of his long and controversial career. Though he’d rebounded from a two-year suspension for blood doping, and even fought back allegations that he’d bought his 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory from Alexandr Kolobnev, the 37-year-old Astana leader looked to have finally run out of road after flying over a concrete column and into a tree on stage 9 of the Tour. From his hospital bed he announced that his racing days were over.

Vinokourov had previously said that he hoped to race through the London Olympics, and when Astana ran into difficulty qualifying for 2012 WorldTour status without Vinokourov’s UCI points, the soft-spoken, attacking Kazakh returned for one final season. Nursing himself back into shape, he went winless heading into his final Tour, where he tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to win a stage.

With all eyes on Great Britain setting up a sprint for Mark Cavendish in London, Vinokourov wisely marked one-day specialists like Fabian Cancellara and Alejandro Valverde, making it into the winning move with 45km to go. After Cancellara crashed out, and then Colombian Rigoberto Uran attacked with 8km remaining, Vinokourov followed. Behind, negative racing gave the leading pair the margin they needed, and Vinokourov easily won the two-up sprint.

Speculation immediately ensued that Vinokourov had bought off the Olympic medal — an accusation not unfounded given Uran’s bizarre riding and the 2010 Liège controversy. Regardless, what was undeniable was that Vino had clawed his way back, from a broken femur and retirement to Olympic gold, a coup perhaps only Vinokourov could have pulled off.