Race leader, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), delivered a telling blow to the hopes of his Vuelta a Espana rivals by following Chris Froome’s attack at the denouement of stage 16 before simply riding away from the Team Sky leader with a little under one kilometre remaining to claim victory on the queen stage.
It was Froome, however, who again delivered the most courageous performance of the day, setting the tempo for the first time in three stages after a weekend spent clawing his way back to the wheels of his rivals each time he was dropped in an astonishing display of determination. There was grit by the bucket load in his performance today but willpower was not enough against an opponent who can realistically be considered among the best the sport has produced and who continues to defy the odds by riding at his highest level for years, just eight weeks after crashing out of the Tour de France with a broken leg.
Today, speed counted for more than guts, however, and when Contador attacked after two kilometres of riding on Froome’s shoulder, the British rider had no response. He appeared to reduce the gap in the final half-a-kilometre, but the Spaniard’s victory was never in doubt. Contador is no stranger to empathic victories on cycling’s biggest (and highest) stages, but today’s performance was special, even by his exalted standards. He ends three days in the Asturias with a lead of 1.36 over compatriot Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 1.39 over Froome.
The stage in detail
An impromptu bout of fisticuffs provided the most memorable action of the 160.5km sixteenth stage from San Martín del Rey Aurelio to the 1,750m denouement at La Farrapona until the final climb of the day hoved into view and Froome set his Team Sky troops to work.
Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Gianlucca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) exchanged angry words and then more on the road to La Farrapona, prompting the comissaire’s car to visit each man separately and signal the end of his race. Brambilla was the first to feel the judges’ wrath, but it did not take long for Rovny to receive his punishment too.
Their disqualification was the shoddiest bit part in an otherwise five star drama played out by the sport’s biggest stars. Once despatched, the television cameras trained their lenses on the head of the peloton, there to find Peter Kennaugh, resplendent in the white jersey of British road race champion and again setting tempo in a fashion that made his omission from Team Sky’s Tour de France squad more baffling than the decision to absent Sir Bradley Wiggins from duties in Yorkshire, London, and France.
When Kennaugh was at last spent after several kilometres of relentless pacemaking (not to mention a display of gurning of which Thomas Voeckler might have been proud), Mikel Nieve took over, unwittingly providing further evidence of the strength in depth of Spanish climbing talent, despite riding in the black and blue of Team Sky. Despite setting a formidable tempo, his compatriots/rivals remained entirely unflustered and it was left to Froome to strike the first blow when Nieve had died off.
Froome’s acceleration, shortly after the 5km to go kite had been passed, was revealing of his returning form. Necessity had proved the mother of invention for Team Sky’s leader in the previous four stages, and while a new found ability to block out his rivals and time trial his way back to, and on occasion past them when their accelerations left them wearied, a rider with Froome’s natural propensity to attack is always likely to be on the front foot when condition allows. Today, his assault was enough to dispatch Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), but Contador looked at ease.
For the next three kilometres, he rode on his opponent’s left shoulder, often so close that a bewildered Froome, turning to the right, failed to spot him entirely. He would have remained keenly aware of Contador’s presence, however, if only by judging the ecstatic response of the fans at the roadside. When the Spaniard dropped the hammer, just after the flamme rouge, all Froome might have noticed was a red blur. The pistol had been fired, and Contador’s bullet-like progress offered no incentive to chase.
Contador did not return to the saddle for another half-a-kilometre, and only then for the briefest respite. This was to be an emphatic victory, not a brief attack intended only to carry him out of sight and out of mind. To win the queen stage was clearly important, but also, it seemed, was the opportunity to gain time on Froome. In this regard, he was less successful, pulling out just 15 seconds as the Team Sky leader rallied to reduce the deficit.
Valverde, who finished fourth, had, to the surprise of many, done enough to maintain second place overall, although his lead over Froome has been trimmed to a threadbare three seconds. Rodriguez, the third member of Spain’s Grand Tour royalty finished in fifth place, but with a deficit to Contador of nearly a minute, and little hope of gaining time on his rivals in the final stage time trial, may now turn his attentions instead to victories on the remaining mountain stages.
Tomorrow will bring rest and an opportunity for reassessment. Contador will know that the race is not yet won. Froome’s gathering form may yet deliver him to Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela and the final stage time trial in his pomp. While the Spaniard is an excellent time trialist, Froome is exceptional, and any gains he can make on the remaining mountain stages – two medium mountain affairs before a summit finish at 1655m at Puerto Ancares on the penultimate day – however marginal, will make the prospect of a final stage decider more realistic.
Vuelta a Espana 2014: stage 16 – result
1) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 4.53.35
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +15″
3) Alessandro de Marchi (ITA) – Cannondale +50″
4) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +55″
5) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +59″
6) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +1.06
7) Daniel Martin (IRE) – Garmin-Sharp +1.12
8) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin +1.22
9) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +1.43
10) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp +1.48
1) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 63.25.00
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.36
3) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +1.39
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +2.29
5) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +3.38
6) Daniel Martin (IRE) – Garmin-Sharp +6.17
7) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin +6.43
8) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +6.55
9) Warren Barguil (FRA) – Giant-Shimano +8.37
10) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale +9.10