Dario Cataldo (QuickStep & Italy) took the biggest win of his life in Valgrande-Pajares Negru; Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM & Belgium) had his heart broken; Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain) took a huge step towards winning his first Grand Tour; Chris Froome (Sky & GB) realised you really can’t race the Tour and Vuelta to win in the same season and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff & Spain) reminded us how champions race.
Many are saying an ‘epic’ day – I’m not so sure; perhaps I’ve spent too much time with Viktor but the rush to find ever more dizzy climbs leaves me a little cold.
To see a rider like Froome reduced to a virtual standstill like a clubman who’s got his gear wrong in a hill climb isn’t what I term ‘spectacle’ – it’s veering towards a freak show.
And we are talking about ‘road racing,’ not tarred goat tracks which have to be ridden on mountain bike gears and go absolutely nowhere.
But perhaps Vik and I are the only ones who think that way?
Cataldo and De Gendt looked to have the stage stitched up with 50 K to go – 14 minutes lead should usually suffice.
But that Contador fellow had ants in his pants and deployed his troops – it may be good money on Saxo-Tinkoff, but you earn it.
Cataldo and De Gendt had taken off after 50 K, working hard with that Iberian sun baking their backs and when the minutes went into the teens they must have thought; ‘it’s ours.’
But Contador isn’t Vincenzo Nibali, there’s only one spot on the podium that Alberto, Bjarne and Oleg are interested in.
As the two desperados reached the bottom of the climb on the way to Valgrande-Pajares Negru, the lead was down to eight minutes as behind, a very committed Euskaltel lent a hand to Saxo-Tinkoff – Igor Anton obviously dreaming big dreams.
He’s won on the Zoncolan in the Giro, so ‘mega-climbs’ hold no fears for him.
The escapees passed under the 15 K to go banner as behind, the race began to splinter as Contador’s animated skeletons turned the pain up another notch – zips down to expose ribs threatening to poke out of white torsos, gulping in precious oxygen, some spinning, some labouring a bigger gear up into the thin air.
At 10 K De Gendt was still in the big ring as Rodriguez’s henchmen Moreno and Menchov tried to regain contact with the lead group.
Distanced by Saxo’s hellish tempo they made it back – but at the cost of a lot of ‘matches burned’.
Nico Roche was with them, but not for long, no sooner was he back than he ‘popped.’
At eight K to go the gap was 5:30, and still Saxo drove hard as Alberto looked back to assess the damage.
The fans began to appear as the grade kicked to 16% for the two leaders – little else to do but plug onwards and upwards.
Contador barked orders to his two last hired killers – and then it was one, as Majka peeled off out the way on a hairpin bend and virtually stopped.
But he’d done major damage; Anton, Froome, Ten Dam, Gesink, Talansky – all gone.
And then Perez was gone and it was Contador versus The Rest, with Valverde first to see reason.
The Movistar man was too clever to try and live with Contador and Rodriguez and let them go – but his ‘ace in the hole,’ Quintana slowly brought him back up.
And it was Valverde who eased off the front once he got back, so as he could ride at his own tempo – but not for long.
Meanwhile, De Gendt and Cataldo battled on past the two K banner, the flag wavers, the clubmen, the impassive cops, those running idiots…
It was Cataldo who got the gap, De Gendt’s massive legs and big gears finally catching up with him.
Quintana jumped his three erstwhile companions as the graphic said 24% – Contador quickly snuffed that out but despite his best efforts, Rodriguez matched Alberto, blow for stinging blow.
Ahead, the Valgrande-Pajares Negru crowd were being treated to what must be the slowest ever race finish, as Cataldo held off De Gendt to take the win at walking pace.
Here’s what the Italian said:
“It’s an unbelievable victory because this morning, I was not 100 percent due to my crash of yesterday. But then I started, and after the first climb the feeling was better.
“At the end of the descent the group was going really fast, but I attacked with De Gendt. For the first 10 to 15km after our attack it was really a fight between us and the group. We had only 30 seconds, so we were really making a time trial effort to try and stay away. At the end we won the fight with the peloton and they let us go.
“During the breakaway we were not really sure about the result. We knew to win the stage we needed to have a good advantage at the foot of the last climb. But when my DS Bramati told me that in the group, only eight or so riders were left, we said maybe it was possible the peloton will start controlling each other instead of us.
“At that point we shared the workload in the breakaway, and in the last three kilometres we started to force things a little bit.
“He attacked me, I attacked him.
“But in the end there was a section of the climb that was not so steep. I attacked and immediately got 20 meters, and it was really a battle between us because Thomas never gives up.
“The last kilometre was the longest of my life. In the last 100m I was ready to put my foot on the ground, but I continued because I had Bramati on the radio, and the public was so close cheering me and supporting me.
“I did everything to pass the finish, and when I did, I was so happy, but so tired that for the first moments after the stage victory it was impossible to celebrate.”
Rodriguez nabbed the bonus for third, Contador was fourth, Valverde fifth and Laurent Didier 181st @ 37:43.
Rest day today – they deserve it!