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.