Vuelta a Espana 2017
On a day of extraordinary drama in La Vuelta, the 117.5km Stage 20 saw it all: horrific weather, crashes galore, a gutsy break, frantic fans, a near-perfect Spanish swansong, a podium shake-up, new riders entering the top ten and, not least, history in the making for a British legend.
Veteran Spaniard Contador attacked the main pack before the fabled final climb and, inspired by the cheering yet often over-zealous crowds, the 34-year-old Trek-Segafredo rider picked off the remaining escapees before holding off the man in red to cap his legendary status on the summit of the Angliru.
Contador became the seventh rider to win on the mythical double-digit ramps of the Angliru – and in doing so ended the prospect of the host nation failing to win a stage in its own race.
Bearing down on Contador – but not so much as to spoil the party – an emotional Froome crossed the line 17 seconds down in third place behind his dependable Sky team-mate Wout Poels to put himself on the brink of becoming the first man in the modern era to win both the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana in the same season.
Only Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault have won both the Tour and Vuelta in the same season – but both did so when the Vuelta was a two-week race held in April.
Froome, the four-time Tour champion, was reduced to tears after his achievement sunk in as he celebrated with Dutchman Poels after their superb double-act on one of cycling’s most feared climbs.
“It’s an absolutely amazing feeling. What a final! Angliru definitely doesn’t disappoint. It’s such a brutal climb,” Froome said, before paying tribute to his great rival and friend Contador.
“We did everything to catch (Alberto) Contador in the final but he was just too strong for us. It’s an amazing way for him to finish his career with such a big victory like that, so congratulations to him. Obviously, also a massive thank you to my team-mates for all the work they have done over the last few weeks. It’s been an incredible experience. Probably one of the hardest Grand Tour I’ve ridden, if not the hardest.”
Third place on the stage saw the 32-year-old Kenyan-born Briton extended his lead over Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) to 2’15” after the Italian could only finish in sixth place after crashing on a wet descent ahead of the decisive climb.
Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) took fourth place on the race’s penultimate stage to move above Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) into the final place in the podium.
There was also a late rise into the top 10 for the American Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) at the expense of Italian national champion Fabio Aru after the Astana rider sensationally cracked on the second of three climbs.
Another Italian, Davide Villella of Cannondale-Drapac, secured the polka dot jersey in the kind of the mountains competition after his nearest opponent, Colombia’s double stage winner Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana, also toiled with the rain and steep gradients.
With heavy showers soaking the peloton at the start in Corvera de Asturias, a group of 18 riders managed to edge ahead on an early unclassified climb before eking out an advantage of one minute over the pack.
The move included some high quality climbers in the mould of Romain Bardet (AGRR-La Mondiale), Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors), Adam and Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), double stage winner Tomasz Marczynski (Lotto Soudal) and the victor at Los Machucos, Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue Sport).
But Contador’s Trek-Segafredo team remained attentive on the front of the pack and, along with Astana and Katusha-Alpecin, ensured that the gap never grew above 1’30” ahead of the three back-to-back climbs ahead of the finish.
The opening Alto de la Corbertoria whittled down the leading group, which was being driven by the impressive Soren Kragh Andersen of Team Sunweb, as Nibali’s Bahrain Merida outfit took up the chasing duties behind.
When the tempo was significantly increased on the second climb, the Alto del Cordal, Astana duo Aru and Lopez were dropped – all but ensuring Villella the polka dot jersey by removing the Colombian climber from the equation.
Spanish youngster Soler led a seven-man group over the summit before skidding out on a wet bend on the descent – allowing Poland’s Marcskynski to take up the reins on the front of the race.
Behind, another Spaniard suffered the same fate – with Quick-Step Floors’ David de la Cruzattacking ahead of the summit before crashing out on the treacherous descent. Unlike Soler – who returned to the race and played a role in the finale – De la Cruz was forced to withdraw from the race because of his injuries.
With Nibali also coming a cropper on the descent, Trek made their move as Contador joined forces with Jarlinson Pantano to open up a gap ahead of the final climb of the 72nd edition of the Vuelta – and the final climb of Contador’s career.
The gap grew fast as Pantano paced his leader through the remnants of the break before hitting the wall with 10 kilometres remaining. Leading the main pack by 40 seconds, Contador joined forces with Simon Yates, compatriots Soler and Mas, and Frenchman Bardet.
Just as this chasing group reeled in the lone leader, Marczynski, the sun decided to force its way through the clouds – as if granting its approval for Contador’s final ride to glory.
Having dropped everyone but the impressive Soler, the triple Vuelta winner made his move with just over 5km remaining – riding clear into a sea of spectators, one of whom had already caused Contador to check his speed on a tight bend.
Behind, a recovered Nibali upped the tempo with team-mate Franco Pellizotti to whittle down the group of favourites as Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) rode clear. But when Froome and Poels finally switched up the gas, Nibali was distanced on the 22% ramp inside the final few kilometres.
As Poels dragged Froome up the mountain and past the faltering escapees, Zakarin led the chase – and in doing so dropped his rival for the podium, Kelderman.
Contador’s advantage – which had been over a minute – came down to just 25 seconds as the Spaniard crested the summit and started the slightly downhill traverse ahead of the finish.
But it was enough to allow the great animator the luxury of being able to sit up, gesticulate towards the crowd, and fire off one last shot of the famous finger-gun celebration that earned him the nickname El Pistolero.
Contador’s sixth Vuelta stage win was his first in a Grand Tour since 2014 but arguably the most popular of his illustrious career, which will end on a high on Sunday after three weeks – nay, 14 years – of entertaining with almost every pedal stroke.
An ecstatic Contador said he was “delighted” at how well he and Pantano had managed to pull off their winning move for Trek.
“There couldn’t be a better finale than this, winning in the Angliru to put an end to my career as a professional rider. This morning, I had it clear that it would be my day and that I had to say farewell in this fashion. I knew there was history in the downhill from Cordal with crashes in previous years. It was a hard day and in that moment we had to be careful with my team-mate (Jarlinson) Pantano. I’m delighted with how things went.”
Poels symbolically brought his leader Froome home to secure the second runner-up spot on the Angliru of his career – six years after the Dutchman finished ahead of Froome in his breakthrough race and behind the man who denied him the overall win: Juan Jose Cobo.
Zakarin finished fourth at 35 seconds while Pellizotti brought Nibali and Kruijswijk home a further 16 seconds back. Kelderman dug deep to defend his 12-second lead on the podium – but finished 1’11” down for eighth to drop to fourth at the expense of the dogged Zakarin.
Bardet was the first of the breakaway riders to cross the line in ninth place and just ahead of Canada’s Michael Woods of Cannondale-Drapac, who secured seventh place in the final top ten.
But all eyes were on Contador and Froome – two big rivals who both got what they wanted on a breath-taking day in northern Spain: a farewell victory on one of the sport’s most iconic slopes for the former, and an historic double for the latter.
La Vuelta concludes tomorrow with the 117.6km Stage 21 to Madrid where the sprinters will contest the win but, more importantly, where Contador will bow out and where Froome will become the stand-out rider not just of his generation but arguably of cycling’s modern era.