Tag Archives: Vuelta a España 2012

Contador hangs on to win Vuelta a-top brutal final climb

The brutal climb — and final climb of this years Vuelta — to the very top of the Bola del Mundo. Photograph: Sirotti

It was only a few days ago that I was proclaiming a finish as the toughest I had ever seen as the riders came to virtual standstills as the pedals fought to turn against the wishes of their legs which when pushing the pedals almost looked as if they were turning in a square motion. Then came yesterday’s finish on the Bola del Mundo. A 11.4 km climb after four prior mountains with an average gradient of well over 10% topping out close to the summit at a mind blowing 23%. I didn’t see everyone go up that climb, but I’m willing to bet that further towards the rear of the field a few boys felt that moment of shame when they had to step off, and walk. In fact, it’s so steep that cars cannot follow the riders right to the summit and the sports directors must switch to motorbikes in order to follow their leading riders.

The men at the front didn’t, but it wasn’t as though they didn’t come close and their legs must surely have been screaming for them to stop. It was mind over matter stuff and a climb of two races. One for the stage victory between Richie Porte and Denis Menchov — the last two survivors of an earlier break — and the race for the final podium positions.

In the race for the victory, Porte and Menchov rode together all the way up the climb. When they past the 500 meters to go sign at the side of the road I was sure it would end up in a sprint between the pair. But it’s amazing how long 500 meters takes to ride when it’s as steep as it was and the riders are as exhausted as they are. It seemed like minutes past and in that final half a kilometre, Menchov still had time to attack a broken Porte and cross the line for the win a full 17 seconds ahead of the Australian. If you only read the results you would have thought Menchov had attacked him halfway up the climb and rode the most of it solo for the victory.

Further behind, Joaquim Rodriguez who just days before looked odds onto have won the Vuelta, was sitting third on GC and desperate to salvage something from the race. A winner of three stages the Spaniard had lost it all on stage 17 when Alberto Contador launched an opportunists attack and made it work. He attacked on some of the steepest parts of the climb and nobody could follow him. Rodriguez may not be winning this tour, but he’s proven himself to be the most explosive climber in cycling right now, and when he kicked Contador could only briefly hold his wheel. It was likely too late for him to make up the 2-21 he was behind Contador on GC, but Valverde had a mere 46 seconds on him and so second place was up for grabs.

Realising this, Valverde set out to limit his losses, catching and passing Contador near the top. Contador knew time was on his side and risked nothing, coming in 44 seconds behind Rodriguez who himself came in 3-31 behind the days winner, Menchov. Valverde threw everything at that final 23% gradient over the final 500 meters and limited his loss to Rodriguez to just 25 seconds keeping him in second overall by 21 seconds. Rodriguez’s single bad day cost him dearly. It cost him the Vuelta win and a second place on GC.

Contador crossed the line doubly revealed no doubt. Happy he had no more climbing to do on this tour, and delighted that he had marked his comeback, in his first Grand Tour since his suspension, with an overall win. He was made to work as hard for this one than perhaps any other Grand Tour victory in his career and given the circumstances leading into it, it will no doubt be his most special to date. It was a gruelling tour wish as much climbing, and as much difficult climbing, as I can remember watching, and in the end it didn’t require him to be the out and out best climbing of the lot, nor the need to win more than one stage. He was the most consistent however and when it mattered his vast experience told.

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Contador siezes control in dramatic fashion after several wild days at the Vuelta

El Pistolero is back in command. Photograph: Bettini

While most of the cycling world have been off reading more stories about Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton’s new book, and whatever other doping story of cycling’s dark past that we’re all too aware of by now anyway, a brilliant Vuelta a Espana has been unfolding around us. What started out as a four way race between Britain’s Chris Froome and three Spaniards, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, whittled its way down to a three man race last week, a two man race by the weekend, and as of this past Wednesday, a one man victory.

The two man race was established between Rodriguez and Contador heading into last weekend and with a couple of huge mountain stages ahead. It’s seemed to me like almost every day of this tour has finished a-top one climb or another. Either a short but steep and punchy climb or a drag to the top of a brutal mountain pass, but flat days for the sprinters have been few and far between. I like a good bunch sprint, but it’s good to see that this Tour has — as some tours have in the past — not been dominated by them, in particular the first week.

Over the weekend Contador tried and tried again to go on the attack on the steepest parts of the toughest stages. He could break everyone except the man he needed to break who would follow his wheel each and every time and then, as if to stick in the knife, he would attack himself to win the stage and take a couple more seconds out of Contador.

Rodriguez had gradually and patiently built his lead over Contador to 30 seconds. Not much at all in the Grand Tour scheme of things, but given how close the pair had been and how inseperable they were over most of the climbs, it did seem like a massive gap. As the weekend came to a close — a weekend which included a stage finish so steep that the riders almost came to a stand still in their slog to the finish line — it looked like Rodriguez was on the verge of his first Grand Tour victory. He had a couple of big mountains to navigate, but he looked strong and he was facing a few easier days in which he could compose himself for the final battle.

Then Contador gambled on an early attack on a stage that, while hilly and with a summit finish, was far from the kind of savage days we’ve seen in the big mountains recently. He rolled the dice, aware that he couldn’t leave it until the final days of this Tour when Rodriguez would likely be able to make his every move once more, and he attacked.

Rodriguez either didn’t or couldn’t follow and it split the field. Contador got into a large group full of strong riders and as the kilometers went by the gap increased. By the time it hit two minutes, Rodriguez had to be in full panic mode. At the foot of the final climb Contador set off alone, Valverde attacked out of the Rodriguez group and the later went to pieces. Contador tired on his way up to the line and Valverde along with a few others almost caught him, but Valverde — who last week was the third man in the three week race — has long since become an outside threat to Contador. It was Rodriguez he needed time from and on top of the time-bonus on the line, he got what he needed and then some. Rodriguez came across in 10th, 2-38 behind the new leader and now odds on favorite to win this Tour. The tables have turned; it’s a one man race now and Contador’s to lose; and he no longer has to try attack Rodriguez.

Yesterday was at last a sprinters stage so no change to the overall which, after the top three — a top three which has seen Rodriguez slide to third — has got huge time gaps.

General classification after stage 18

1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank in 72-25-21

2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 1-52

3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team at 2-28

4. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling at 9-40

5. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team at 11-36

6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 12-02

Others:

12. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale at 16-22

Rodriguez moves into the hot seat; Froome slips away

Rodriguez opens up a gap on the stage and the GC. Photograph: Sirotti

Joaquim Rodriguez who managed to fight off his fast rivals against the clock yesterday, extended his lead today and now sits in prime position to win his first Grand Tour. There’s a lot of racing still to go and enough climbs for a bad day to be had, but one thing is clear, the terrain ahead is all to the liking of Rodriguez and his victory today showed why he’s looking confident.

Yesterday’s individual time-trial was the best shot for Chris Froome to win this years Vuelta. He needed to go out and ride like he did in the Tour and at the Olympics and put serious time into his opponents. Alberto Contador would always be a tough nut to crack, but this is where his Vuleta would ultimately be won and lost. And as it turns out, it would appear this is where it was lost.

To be fair to Froome he came out of that time-trial just 18 seconds behind race leader Rodriguez, but with no time-trials to come and Rodriguez looking as strong as anyone in the mountains even that gap was going to take a big effort to overcome.

That sounds crazy but it was shown today when Froome lost another 23 seconds to Rodriguez who won the ‘flat’ stage that was flat for all but the two kilometers and which seen a brutal rise up to the line at an average gradient of 13% with some parts topping out at 20%. Even Contador couldn’t stick with Rodriguez and lost 8 seconds.

I should however not be so quick to write off this Tour as being done, or being that of a two man race as much as it’s beginning to look that way. There are some huge days in the mountains ahead and any one of the top four are capable of having a brilliant day or a disaster. Rodriguez could yet lose minutes, likewise could Contador, or either of them could break the rest to take further minutes.

It’s become a fascinating Tour and while Rodriguez and Contador now look like the favorites what with Contador 13 seconds behind Rodriguez who gained a time-bonus for winning today, with Froome and Alejandro Valverde sitting 51 seconds and 1-20 back respectively, all Froome can keep doing is pressuring, attacking and hoping that one or both of them snap. It was always a big ask for Froome to do what he did in France last month, then at the Olympics, and then come in here and win this, but he’s hanging in there despite the two Spaniards surging on today’s climb.

And who do you pick as favorite now? Sure Rodriguez looks the strongest after taking time from Contador today, but that could all change tomorrow. Contador has the experience of winning a three week Tour and he’ll have to call on that experience over the next week and a bit. This weekend will reveal a lot about where this race is going, and it’s going to be great to watch.

Stage 12 result

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team in 4-24-32

2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank at 8 secs

3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 13 secs

4. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 20 secs

5. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling at 23 secs

6. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team at same time

General classification after stage 12

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team in 44-50-35

2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank at 13 secs

3. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling at 51 secs

4. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 1-20

5. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 2-59

6. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team at 3-29

7. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale at 4-22

Four way battle in the Vuelta GC

Three of the ‘big four’ minus Chris Froome grind to the top of Saturday’s final climb. Photograph: AFP Photo

The Vuelta hit its first rast day today, which was fine by me as I was back into work after a nice weekend in which I, for once, had the free time to sit down and watch both stages. That sort of stuff is becoming all to rare, so when I realised I had a free weekend I jumped on the computer to see what kind of stages lay ahead for my viewing pleasure. I almost got a nasty scare.

I misread the stage schedule at first and thought it said the rest day was on Sunday. I began cursing the race organisers for not putting everyone’s weekend and a rare opportunity to put aside a couple of straight hours to watching the race on TV, only to find out it was my error and that I should curse myself for giving myself such a nasty shock.

Four way battle

Saturday was a ‘high mountain’ stage according to the stage guide which precisely the words a cycling fan loves to watch when they look to see what the stage they’re about to watch has in store. And it didn’t disappoint.

Once again it turned into a battle of Joaquim Rodriguez (in the leaders red jersey) vs. Chris Froome vs. Alberto Contador vs. Alejandro Valverde. They all took a turn to attack at one stage or another but it was Valverde who made the first move before Froome rode across. Froome himself then went clear but had to deal with that classic tactic of Contador wheel sucking, waiting for his moment as opposed to helping a break that had developed. Had the two of them rode on upthe climb there’s a chance we’d be talking about a two-way battle for the GC in this race today, so maybe it’s a good thing Contador almost came to a standstill when Froome slowed to try force him to take a pull.

They were eventually caught by the other two and just when it looked like they might contest the four-way sprint, Contador made his move. It was classic Contador, and baring flipping the finger at the others, he charged off up the mountain. But then it wasn’t classic Contador … he couldn’t sustain it and as Froome cracked from his earlier effort that perhaps highlighted why Contador wouldn’t take a pull at the time, Rodriguez and Valverde charged after the other Spaniard.

They caught him on the final turn and it was Valverde who kicked across the line in first. A fantastic win on a finish full of high drama and despite Froome trailing in 15 seconds behind, it left the GC wide open with Rodriguez still in red, Froome 33 seconds back, with Contador at 40 seconds and Valverde at 50.

At long last Philippe Gilbert

Sunday’s stage was generally a day off for the biggest names. Or it should have been. There was a 3rd category climb near the finish and a little hill up to the line, but nothing that should have troubled a big name nor enough for one of them to make a move. But the later didn’t apply and as is proving to be the case in this Tour, unpredictability reigned.

They hit the third category climb altogether and with a bunch sprint not entirely out of the question but then Contador of all men made the attack and it kissed goodbye to half the field as the hurt was put on. They eventually rode across to him and then, of all people, the red jersey of Rodriguez made a move. It wasn’t the kind of attacks we expected in a relatively short, though very steep climb, but someone like Rodriguez must realize all too well what he could lose in the upcoming time-trial and so is taking every chance he can to nibble back time on any climb and especially on the line where time bonus’ are up for grabs. It’s a very similar tactic to the one he employed against Ryder Hesjedal in the Giro and even then it wasn’t enough come that final time-trial.

He was joined by a surging Philippe Gilbert, who after dominating the road scene in 2011 was still riding without a race in 2012. It had been an awful year for the Belgian after signing a big contract with the BMC team this past winter, but the minute you seen him power across to Rodriguez you felt this would be his best chance yet for a stage win. I’d love to have seen the power data he was putting through the pedals over the top of that climb and onto the wheel of Rodriguez, but I dare say it would have been enough watts to keep my home lit for the week.

The two of them pressed one; one after a stage win, one after time. It was the perfect mix and when it came down to it Rodriguez was never going to out sprint Gilbert. The Belgian finally had his stage win and the Spaniard gained a dozen seconds plus a time-bonus.

The upshot of it all was that heading into the rest day after a week of brilliant racing, Rodriguez was still in Red with a healthy 53 second gap over Froome. Tuesday is a rare flat stage which should prove effectively to be a second rest day for the big names before Wednesday’s time-trial. It’s doubtful that 53 seconds will be enough for Rodriguez, but it’s enough that he shouldn’t lose his race lead by too much and it’ll more than allow him to attack to win it back when the mountains roll around again. Unlike at the Giro, this time-trial comes with lots of racing still to come.

General classification after stage 9

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team in 34-44-55

2. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling at 53 sec

3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank  at 1-00

4. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 1-07

5. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 2-01

6. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team at 2-08

7. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale at 2-34

The fun hasn’t stopped; The Vuelta is underway

You wouldn’t want to be a cycling fan living in the south of Spain

Just when you thought you couldn’t get anymore good cycling this fine summer — what with an fantastic Giro d’Italia in the early days of the summer that now seems oh-so-long-ago, and then a Tour de France that itself seems longer ago than it really is thanks to the Olympic games which offered us two weeks of wheel-to-wheel action from the road race, to the time-trial, the track cycling, the BMX and on the final days of those brilliant London games, the mountain bike race — this past weekend seen the start of another Grand Tour: the Vuelta a España.

The route itself has the potential to throw out lots of drama and right from the beginning. The climbs come early, and as we have seen, they’re testing enough to separate the contenders from the rest and let us know before the race is even a week old just who will be contending for the red jersey.

British cycling is in the midst of its finest year in history. A golden age and the crest of a high wave, though don’t tell anyone too loudly that this is the ‘crest’, but it’s seen British track cyclists clean up at the World Championships earlier in the year and dominate the track at the Olympics, a British winner of the Tour de France for the first time ever thanks to Bradley Wiggins and the same man winning Gold in the Olympic time-trial. Throw in the dominance of the British team in general at the Olympics and how quickly England’s failure at the European Championships — remember those? — back in June has subsided into forgotten memory. Even Andy Murray’s Olympic Gold allowed everyone to forget his defeat at Wimbledon just a few weeks before on the same court to the same man he beat in his Gold medal game.

And here we are in Spain, still in the throws of summer and another British cyclist is out there chasing glory and looking to extend this monumental year. Chris Froome — yes born and raised in Kenya and only British thanks to his cycling license after a falling out with the Kenyan cycling federation but whose looking at the details? — is right in the mix to win this race. I joked about waiting for a British winner of the Tour de France to be like that of London buses where you wait forever for one and two come along at once when Wiggins and Froome finished first and second, but the idea of a British winner of both the Tour de France and the Vuelta — not to mention a Canadian winner of the Giro — is more than surreal for this fan.

Action got underway on Saturday with a team-time-trial of which I watched as a re-run later the same night from my bed in a hotel room after a wedding. It was won by the Movistar Team of pre-race contender Alejandro Valverde giving them that rare distinction that only occurs when a team-time-trial opens up a stage race of having the top six on GC occupied by riders from the same team.

Sunday was a sprint stage won by John Degenklob, who would also win this afternoons (Wednesday) stage marking him out as the fast man to beat on this years flat stages at the Vuelta. Monday and Tuesday however were full of action with two challenging climbs right at the finish. The Tour de France did this as well, though these climbs were tougher still, but it’s something we’re beginning to see more of as the days of the first week being one for the sprinters are becoming a thing of the past.

On the way up Monday’s final climb Alberto Contador — back in his first major stage race since his suspension for doping ended — put his foot on the gas in true Contador style to hurt his opponents. Unlike the Contador of old however, those springing attacks were shorter and less prolonged and while the majority still dropped off because of them, a handful of riders were able to follow. It was still great to see … no hanging around marking one another, but Contador putting on the pressure right from the first opportunity. It was bike racing at its finest.

Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez marked every one of his five little bursts, while Froome would see a gap appear only to ride himself across once Contador’s fast kick relented. In years gone by it might not have relented and this Tour might have risked being over by the third day, but as they crested the summit and raced for the line it was the four of them ahead of the rest. Valverde pipped Rodriguez on the line while a handful of other outsiders including Ireland’s Nicolas Roche came in six seconds behind.

On stage four and with another uphill finish, an early break was allowed to go clear and stay clear to take the spoils. Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge took the win in a sprint ahead of Tony Martin, while behind Valverde’s race was being thrown into chaos. The Spaniard, who had surprised me by his sudden form the day before, got mixed up in a crash and was left behind. He closed the gap with help from others until the last climb but then the elastic snapped. Contador tried his accelerations only to be matched by Froome. The attacks relented and Contador, Martin and other big names finished in a large group 1-04 behind Clarke. Valverde came in 55 seconds behind Contador, while Rodriguez took over the race lead.

The stage has now been set for what’s looking like a classic duel between four men and whoever else can plunge themselves into the mix. Just 46 seconds separate the top ten on GC with a lot of action still to come.

General classification after stage 4

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team in 17-29-22

2. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling at 1 sec

3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank at 5 sec

4. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 9 sec

5. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at same time

6. Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Sky Procycling at 11 sec

7. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team at 14 sec

8. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale at 24 sec

9. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 36 sec

10. Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 46 sec