Gianluca Brambilla and Ivan Rovny may have claimed the headlines during the 16th stage of the 2014 Vuelta a Espana as they were disqualified for exchanging blows when riding with a small breakaway group, but the real drama occurred on the final climb of the day. Alberto Contador won the race to the summit finish at La Farrapona and possibly sealed victory in the three week race with five days remaining.
The preceding two stages had witnessed continuous attacks by Contador and one or two by both Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez as they attempted to eliminate each other from general classification contention. Both days involved equally arduous summit finishes but the attacks were repelled as the cycling resembled a game of chess with mind games becoming as important as riding ability.
On two successive days in the Northern Spanish mountain area, 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome was unable to cope with the repeated surges but was able to recover ground when the others slowed as they dared one another to make the next move.
Froome eventually gained a few seconds in time as he sprinted clear on Saturday with one kilometre remaining. However, Monday’s stage to La Farrapona proved to be different with the Team Sky rider attempting the first serious attack with several kilometres remaining.
Contador was able to follow and looked comfortable but for the first time in three days, Rodriguez and Valverde were unable to match the acceleration, yet they had both refused to yield after repeated attacks by Contador especially on the previous day.
With Froome setting the pace at the head of affairs, Contador was able to ride in his slipstream until the last kilometre and then produced his trademark quick acceleration to win the stage by 15 seconds from Froome with the other contenders a further 40 seconds adrift.
Spaniard Contador now leads fellow compatriot Valverde by 1 minute and 36 seconds with Froome now occupying third position just three seconds behind the Movistar rider. Had not the Spanish riders wasted so much time in trying to outwit each other on the summit finish at Lagos de Covadonga during the previous day, Froome may now already be out of contention to win the leader’s red jersey.
He has been reprieved and still retains the opportunity to win the race or at least occupy a podium position among the first three positions. Yet Contador still appears to be the strongest rider despite the broken leg injury incurred during July and he may be content to follow the other riders during Saturday’s penultimate stage at the summit finish of Puerto de Ancares.
Preserving his current lead until the final day should guarantee Contador overall victory as it is difficult to envisage Froome overhauling a near 100 second deficit in a 10 kilometre individual time trial.