Fabio Aru (Astana) soloed to victory on stage 11 of the Vuelta a Espana after a perfectly-timed, late attack on the Alto San Miguel.
Aru, third at the Giro d’Italia, accelerated away from an elite leading group, which also contained red jersey Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and the chief GC men to take the stage victory.
Contador, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Chris Froome (Team Sky) – despite the latter appearing to struggle at times on the final climb – all finished together as Contador retained the red jersey however.
There was disaster for Nairo Quintana though, the Movistar man having crashed for the second time in two days, abandoning the race as a result of a displaced fracture to his scapula.
How it unfolded
Setting off from Pamplona, there was no shortage of riders looking to go on the attack on a stage which looked well suited to the breakaway.
Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) was among the riders brought back early on as Katusha and Orica-GreenEDGE were among the teams keeping a watchful eye on any move looking to go clear.
Before any move had actually stuck, however, disaster struck in the bunch with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) among the riders to hit the deck in a big crash.
Having already dropped out of the overall reckoning after taking a heavy tumble during the stage ten time trial, the Colombian abandoned the race – which just two days ago he had been leading – to transfer to hospital.
Steve Morabito (BMC Racing) was another victim of the crash, he too forced to abandon, as a frantic pace in the bunch continued to ensue.
The attacking continued – David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) and Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) finding themselves in a large group in front of the peloton at one point but again they were brought back by a determined Katusha team.
Red jersey Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) even found himself the right side of a split as groups continued to tail off the front – though Movistar and Katusha responded immediately to pull it back.
With 50 kilometres covered in the first hour, the bunch was still a whole entity by the time they reached the first immediate sprint – Valverde beating Contador to the three-second time bonus on offer.
It was a further ten kilometres before a break finally stuck however, Kiryienka again attacking as Johan le Bon (FDJ.fr), Elia Favilli (Lampre-Merida) and Pim Ligthart (Lotto-Belisol) joined him up the road.
The abandonments continued in the peloton, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) another to depart the race, as Katusha once again drove hard on the front to bring the gap to the escapees down.
Kiryienka attacked solo with 44 kilometres to go, maintaining a small gap over the Katusha-led peloton and a chasing group in between.
With the Belarussian’s lead holding, Katusha brought more riders forward to lead the chase and it was only as he hit the steepest sections of the first climb, the Puerto de Lizarraga, that he began to suffer.
His effort up the road took its toll and with 20 kilometres to go his lead was rapidly being eaten in to.
The fight for position ahead of the final climb further disadvantaged Kiryienka’s lone bid for the stage win, as Trek Factory Racing hit the front and Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and Katusha brought men forward.
Cannondale were also interested in fighting for position, taking over the front as the GC contenders stayed safely towards the group but the suffering started immediately on the climb.
Katusha rode hard on the front on the lower slopes, while Philip Deignan (Team Sky) also came forward – Sky’s tactics appearing to suggest Froome was back in form despite him appearing to be struggling at the back.
It was the Irishman who shut down an attempted attack by Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) – the Giro d’Italia King of the Mountains dropping straight back out the back of the front group when he was caught.
Riders continued to get shelled out the back – Froome included, despite team-mate Dario Cataldo riding hard on the front.
Froome recovered again, however, with the main GC men all around him in the front group while Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) and Robert Gesink (Belkin) attempted moves off the front.
Gorka Izaguirre led the chase, though Gesink had built a small ten-second advantage with just five kilometres remaining.
Froome, Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) and Winner Anacona (Lampre-Merida), meanwhile, clung desperately to the back of the ever-reducing group.
As the attacks continued – Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) setting off in pursuit of Gesink – Froome used a flatter section to fight back, however.
At the front, Contador set the pace – shutting down Martin and Navarro’s initial moves before the two went again.
Katusha, meanwhile, hit the front with Giampaolo Caruso – their ambitions for the stage having been clear from the very start.
With Gesink continuing to hold the bunch at bay, Froome again lost contact at the back, before riding back with Damiano Caruso (Cannondale), even hitting the front for a spell.
An attack by Contador, inside the final kilometre, once again put him in difficulty but as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) shut the move down the pace slowed sufficiently for Froome to rejoin.
Navarro, Gesink and Martin were all caught – the repeated attacks, counter-attacks and then slowing of the pace playing into the hands of the likes of Froome and Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing) as they clung to the back of the group.
Navarro went again, joined by Aru however, with what finally proved to be the race-winning move – though not for the Spaniard, the Italian putting a big gap into him almost immediately.
Dani Moreno (Katusha) led the chase, but Aru stretched his lead to eight seconds as the Spaniard’s chase faded.
Froome remained up front, as did Valverde, Rodriguez, Contador and Rogoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quickstep).
Their chase, however, could not bring Aru back as he continued his fine season with a second Grand Tour stage win – following his solo triumph at the Giro.
The action continued apace behind, meanwhile, as Contador tried to stretch his lead overall.
His attack was marked by Valverde and Rodriguez though, the former taking the sprint for second – six seconds after Aru.
Froome followed the three across the line, just a single second down despite his troubles, to ensure the race for the red jersey remains a heated affair as they pass the halfway point for this year’s race.
Vuelta a Espana 2014: stage 11 – result
1) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana – 3.41.03hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +6”
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha – ST
4) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo
5) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +7”
6) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +13”
7) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +15”
8) Dan Martin (IRL) – Garmin-Sharp – ST
9) Daniel Navarro (ESP) – Cofidis +16”
10) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +21”
1) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 40.26.56hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +20”
3) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +1.08
4) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +1.21
5) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +1.35
6) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +1.52
7) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +2.13
8) Winner Anacona (COL) – Lampre-Merida +2.22
9) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +2.55
10) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale +3.51