Denis Menchov (Katusha) won the brutal penultimate stage of the 2012 Vuelta a Espana while Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) all-but sealed overall victory in his comeback Grand Tour.
The last day of action in the mountains delivered all the excitement anticipated from a final battle played out before giant crowds who lined a road that unfolded in gradients of more than 20 per cent.
Menchov crossed the line first at the summit of the Bola del Mundo, the last of four first category climbs and one that gained 500 metres of altitude in the final five kilometres of the stage, topping out at nearly 2250 metres.
But the real action of the stage unfolded behind him as the three men who have contested every mountain stage resumed hostilities for a final day.
Today, it was race leader, Contador, who was left without an answer for the attack of Rodriguez. ‘Purito’ rode away from his countryman in the closing kilometres, fighting his way through swathes of screaming fans determined to cheer on the home nation’s three best riders.
Contador, dominant on stage 17 where he rode the final 50km alone to seal a memorable victory in Fuente De, appeared utterly without power as first Rodriguez and the third-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) winner of two stages, dropped him.
The Madrileno said he had enjoyed the stage, despite coming to almost a complete stop, and praised the crowd for their support. He crossed the line in twelfth, 4.15 after Menchov, 44 seconds behind Rodriguez, and 19 seconds down on Valverde.
Barring disaster, Contador will cross the line in his home city tomorrow as 2012 Vuelta champion, an impressive achievement for his first Grand Tour after a hotly disputed doping ban.
Chris Froome’s day ended with mechanical failure. The Team Sky leader crossed the line with a puncture, having decided to leap home than stop in an attempt to secure a replacement from a neutral service car, determined to ‘get it over with’.
After a tremendous season in which he finished runner up to Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France, and won a bronze medal in the men’s time trial at the Olympic Games, the Vuelta appeared a step too far for Froome.
Team Sky finished the mountains with a second place for Australian rider, Richie Porte, a key lieutenant to Bradley Wiggins in the Tour.
Vuelta a Espana stage 20 – result
1) Denis Menchov (RUS) – Katusha – 4.48.48
2) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky +17”
3) Kevin De Weert (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +42”
4) Fredrik Kessiakoff (SWE) – Astana Pro Team + 1.16
5) Romain Sicard (FRA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +1.39
6) Eros Capecchi (ITA) – Liquigas-Cannondale +2.30
7) Maxime Bouet (FRA) – AG2R-La Mondiale +2.39
8) Simon Geschke (GER) – Argos-Shimano +3.14
9) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha +3.31
10) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar +3.56
1) Alberto Contador (SPA) – Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank – 82.14.52
2) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar +1.16
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha +1.37
4) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +10.16
5) Daniel Moreno (SPA) – Katusha +11.29
6) Robert Gesink (NED) – Rabobank +12.23
7) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +13.28
8) Laurens Ten Dam (NED) – Rabobank Cycling Team +13.41
9) Igor Anton (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +14.01
10) Benat Intxausti (SPA) – Movistar +16.13