Racing on climbs of a gradient unseen in the preceding two Grand Tours, four riders staged two separate but thrilling battles for honours on the day and in the general classification on the queen stage of the 2012 Vuelta a Espana.
When Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) triumphed over Vacansoleil-DCM’s Thomas De Gendt, after the Belgian came close to reprising his victory on the slopes of the Stelvio Pass in the Giro’s queen stage, fans could have left the vertiginous slopes of the Cuitu Negru content that they had witnessed an epic battle.
But the contest waged further down the mountain was still more inspiring, with 2008 champion, Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) again taking the fight to race leader, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) with a series of blistering attacks, only to find ‘Purito’ could match everything he had.
In a repeat of yesterday’s stage, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, now a comfortable third after another dispiriting day for Chris Froome (Team Sky), and his teammate, Nairo Quintana, were the only riders able to keep Contador and Rodriguez in sight.
Rodriguez passed Contador on the run to the finish line, an emphatic answer to the repeated onslaughts of his more decorated countryman, and one whom many observers, Contador included, felt would have the upper hand on the obscene gradients witnessed today.
Rodriguez, a consistent top 10 finisher in Grand Tours of recent years, seems to have stepped up a gear this season, finishing second in the Giro, and remaining on course for victory in the Vuelta.
The Barcelona native is refusing to count his chickens, limiting himself to the sober assessment that while 70 per cent of the race is complete, the wicked gradients of Saturday’s penultimate stage, which terminates at the summit of the 2,247 metre Bola del Mundo, could yet prove decisive.
For Chris Froome, hopes of the podium, still less overall victory, evaporated in the searing heat and brutal gradients of a stage that can be considered withering even in a race of almost constant ascending.
Refering to the brutal passage to the summit of the Negru, Froome said: “That was such a hard climb. I’m struggling to think about what I can compare it to. There are not many stages that you do which finish up a climb that is 20km long and the last 4km is an average of almost 20 per cent. I don’t think the screen or TV can do that justice. It really is a grueling climb.
“There was a stage with about 150 metres to go where I looked at the ramp ahead of me and thought ‘I might have to walk up there’!
“It’s tough to look at other guys and think about trying to stay on the wheel. I just tried to ride my own speed up there and survive as best I could.
“We have a rest day coming up tomorrow and we’re ready for the last week. The hardest part of the race is probably behind us now I think and it’s just day by day now Madrid. I’m giving it everything and we’ll see where that puts me after three weeks.”
Tomorrow’s 187.3km stage from Santander to Fuente Dé features two second category climbs, the last of which presents the summit finish of a parcourse that, after today, might feel like a flat stage.
Vuelta a Espana stage 16 – result
1) Dario Cataldo (ITA) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep – 5.18.28
2) Thomas De Gendt (BEL) – Vacansoleil-DCM +7”
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha +2.39
4) Alberto Contador (SPA) – Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank +2.41
5) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar +2.58
6) Nairo Quintana Rojas (COL) – Movistar +3.24
7) Igor Anton (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +4.07
8) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +4.15
9) Laurens Ten Dam (NED) – Rabobank +4.18
10) Robert Gesink (NED) – Rabobank +4.21
1) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha – 63.38.24
2) Alberto Contador (SPA) – Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank +28”
3) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar +2.04
4) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky + 4.52
5) Daniel Moreno (SPA) – Katusha +6.58
6) Robert Gesink (NED) – Rabobank +7.28
7) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +8.28
8) Laurens Ten Dam (NED) – Rabobank +9.00
9) Igor Anton Hernandez (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +9.11
10) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – AG2R-La Mondiale +11.44