Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won an enthralling sixth stage of the Vuelta a Espana as the first summit finish of this year’s race played host to an intriguing battle of the GC favourites.
Valverde narrowly beat Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) to cap a phenomenal ride, which had seen him take a huge turn on the front to set a fierce pace on the Alto de Cumbres Verdes.
The victory puts the Spaniard back into the red jersey overall, while Froome and Contador also sent a stunning reminder to their rivals that they are in great shape despite their Tour de France crashes.
After their eagerly anticipated battle at the Tour de France did not come to fruition, the trio stole the show on the final climb as, joined by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Giro d’Italia winner, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), they attacked late from a 12-man leading group.
Rodriguez and Quintana could not quite hold on, but all five proved their strength as the battle for the red jersey ignited.
Earlier, as he had the day before, Pim Ligthart (Lotto-Belisol) formed half of the day’s break, this time joined up the road by Lluis Guillermo Mas (Caja Rural-Seguros).
Unlike the previous day, however, when Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) had joined him on a much less undulating stage, Ligthart was given the freedom to go clear by the bunch.
The 26-year-old Dutchman worked well with his companion and – with the peloton happy to let them clock the miles up the road before the Alto de Cumbres Verdes, the first summit finish of this year’s race, the gap was more than 14 minutes at one point.
A large counter-attack had earlier tried to bridge, with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and former King of the Mountains winner Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) among them.
They were soon reeled back in, however, to ensure it would be just a two-man break for the second stage running.
Movistar once again came to the front of the bunch, packing in riders behind Garmin-Sharp trio Johan van Summeren, Nathan Haas and Nate Brown.
Katusha also hit the front and rode hard, though they had to bring a premature end to their efforts when a mechanical saw team leader Joaquim Rodriguez drop to the back of the bunch.
Nevertheless, the peloton had brought the leaders back to within four minutes as the day’s final climb began – Ligthart having led Mas through the intermediate sprint.
Despite a bonus second being on offer, the peloton was unperturbed as it passed through the checkpoint – the sprinters also showing no interest in getting involved.
With Rodriguez back in the bunch, Katusha came forward once again and found Sky, Lampre-Merida, Movistar, Tinkoff-Saxo and Orica-GreenEDGE to be also bringing riders forward.
The latter were riding for Johan Esteban Chaves and Adam Yates, rather than red jersey Michael Matthews, who instead performed a huge turn on the front in his final day in red.
Meanwhile British champion Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky) was working to place Chris Froome in what was a full-blooded battle for position.
With five kilometres remaining, as the climb started, the two breakaway riders were just 30 seconds in front of the bunch, hung out in front as a tantalising carrot for the GC men to chase.
The steady incline on the lower ramps of the Cumbres Verdes saw the fighting for position continue – Katusha and Movistar active at the front.
At the front, Ligthart made one final bid for freedom as the gap came down to single digits, while Christophe le Mevel (Cofidis) made an attempt to bridge.
Both were caught, however, as the favourites initially appeared to expend little energy in tackling the lower slopes of the climb.
Alberto Losado (Katusha) hit the front as the race came back together, with three kilometres remaining, however as the roads rampe up.
Big names began to drop off the back – Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) among them.
The group was down to just 25 riders as George Bennett (Cannondale) launched a short-lived attack, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) chasing him down.
Just behind him, Valverde seemingly pulled hard with team-mate Quintana on his wheel.
Valverde’s pace finally began to tell as Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) were among the riders shelled with less than two kilometres to go.
Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) and Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing) also suffered, while Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) clung desperately to the tails of the elite leading group.
Just 13 riders remained in the front group, with Quintana barking instructions to Valverde on the front as the Movistar duo maintained control of the stage heading under the flamme rouge.
Uran succumbed to the pace inside the final kilometres as Chaves held on to the wheels of the two front men – Froome and Rodriguez looked equally comfortable, while Contador showed little sign of his leg injury.
Rodriguez and Valverde were the first to attack, with Froome, Quintana and Contador responding immediately – Froome hitting the front as Quintana lost contact with the leading four.
Froome did not once get out of the saddle, his easy riding style showing he too is in great shape despite his Tour de France crash.
It was to be Valverde who took the stage honours, however, to return to the red jersey, accelerating late and powering away to beat Froome and Contador to top spot.
His time bonus – and the gap to fourth-placed Rodriguez and fifth-placed Quintana – means he now boasts a 15-second overall lead.
Vuelta a Espana 2014: stage six – result
1) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – 4.35.27hrs
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky – ST
3) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +8”
5) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +12”
6) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +18”
7) Johan Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE +25”
8) Daniel Navarro (ESP) – Cofidis – ST
9) Mikel Nieve (ESP) – Team Sky +32”
10) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +33”
1) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – 22.48.08hrs
2) Nairo Quintan (COL) – Movistar +15”
3) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo +18”
4) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +22”
5) Johan Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE +41”
6) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +45”
7) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +55”
8) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +58”
9) Warren Barguil (FRA) – Giant-Shimano +1.02
10) Wilco Kelderman (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +1.06