As the saying goes, in cycling’s three grand tours, there are days when perhaps the race may not be won, but it can certainly be lost. Seldom has that adage been demonstrated as dramatically as it was seven kilometres from the end of yesterday’s Stage 14 of the Vuelta when Igor Anton crashed out of the race, his dreams of topping the general classification in Madrid next Sunday as tattered as the red jersey he wore as overall leader.
The colour of that jersey camouflaged much of blood pouring from the cuts on Anton’s body after he came down at a speed that Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd, riding just behind, reckoned to be 80 kilometres an hour as the GC contenders jostled for position ahead of the climb.
Lacerations apart, a broken elbow meant there was no question of the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider being able to continue to the summit finish on Peña Cabarga, where thousands of orange-clad Basque fans had lined the ascent to cheer on their hero.
Ahead, Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, who had lost 59 seconds and the race lead to Anton on Stage 11 in Andorra as Anton took back the red jersey he had previously worn on Stages 9 and 10, won the stage from Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas Doimo, the new overall leader, and lies just four seconds behind the Sicilian in the general classification.
“Unfortunately, I’m getting used to this kind of situation”, said Anton, who broke his hip in a crash on the Angliru during the 2008 Vuelta, when lying sixth on the GC. The difference this time, of course, was that he was leading the race, with Alberto Contador, commentating for the Spanish television channel TVE, saying he “had the Vuelta in his hands.”
“When things were going well at the Vuelta, I stayed calm and I kept my feet on the ground,” Anton said after his crash. “Now I keep the same philosophy although it has ended in an unexpected manner. I’ve proven that I can hope to win a Grand Tour. I’ll come back with the intention of winning. With my team-mates who have done a fantastic job for me, we’ll come back stronger in 2011.”
Initially it appeared that Anton’s fall might have been due to his touching the wheel of Euskaltel-Euskadi colleague Egoi Martinez, who also crashed heavily and was taken away in an ambulance with a suspected broken collarbone, but the 27-year-old admitted afterwards, “I crashed alone.”
He continued: “I thought I had hit a hole or an obstacle, my hands went off the handlebars. I stood up, I saw blood all over the place but I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. Instinctively I tried to go back on my bike and I realised my right elbow couldn’t bend. Our team doctor came straight away. He touched my arm and said: forget about it, it’s broken.”
Anton, who rather than burying his head in his hands as he sat in the team car minutes after his crash instead managed to smile and give a thumbs-up to the TV cameras, perhaps a signal to his family and fans that all things considered he wasn't too badly hurt, added: “I’ll keep from these fourteen days at the Vuelta the memory of my happiness, I’ve lived a dream.”
Rodriguez, the stage winner, confessed afterwards that he was barely aware of the drama unfolding as the race leaders prepared for the final climb. “It’s a pity that the Vuelta ends like this for Igor Anton,” the Katusha rider said, “he and his team were strong. I haven’t seen the crash, I only heard the noise. Everyone wanted to get a good position before the climb, it was very fast. I didn’t know the leader was down.”
The 31-year-old Catalan added that he had learnt from his experience on Stage 11 when he surrendered the overall lead to Anton, insisting: “I haven’t made the same mistake as in Andorra, I’ve waited till the last moment to take my chance and make the difference. This time I’ve raced with my head. I was probably overconfident in Andorra, today I’ve modified my tactic and it has paid off.” He also revealed that his victory celebration, when he covered his right eye with his hand, was inspired by an insect bite that he had suffered earlier in the stage, which he had to apply ice to in an attempt to keep the swelling down.
Looking ahead to today’s Stage 15 which covers 187.3km, which follows a route mainly along the Costa Verde on Spain’s northern coast before the race heads into the Picos de Europa for what promises to be an explosive final climb to the finish, Rodriguez said: “Tomorrow up to the Lakes of Covadonga, I’ll have to be careful. I might have a bad day. I’ll watch Nibali but not only him, several riders can still win the Vuelta.”
Nibali likewise expressed sympathy for the man from whom he took the race lead, stating: “I feel sad for Anton. I’ve learned about his retirement after the finish. I know what it is to lose the leader’s jersey because of a crash, it happened to me at the Giro this year,” although at least then, Nibali went on to finish on the podium, with team mate Ivan Basso taking the overall.
“I would have preferred to become the leader of the Vuelta in a different way but I can’t refuse the jersey, I have to respect my sponsors as well,” added the Liquigas-Doimo rider, who went on to explain that a mistake over the layout of the final kilometre of the stage had led to him making his move too soon.
“I did my best to win the stage but I confused the banner of the mountains classification and the one of the finish,” confessed the 25-year-old. “Once I realised my mistake, Rodriguez had passed me and I’ve preferred to go at my rhythm. Tomorrow is another special day. I’ll try to stay at the contact of the best climbers again and I hope to ride a great time trial after that.”
Two cyclists who took advantage of the stage to move up the general classification are Nicolas Roche of AG2R-La Mondiale and Team Saxo Bank’s Fränk Schleck, who now lie fifth and sixth, respectively, in the GC.
After crossing the line to clinch fifth place on the stage, Roche said: “I feel better now than in the days following the rest day. The circumstances of the race have been good for me.”
He added, however, that he had “been lucky” to avoid the crash that ended the overall leader’s race. “I was on Anton’s right hand side when he fell,” explained the Irishman. “I heard the crash and I’ve seen a bike passing next to me.”
Roche maintained that on the ascent to the finish, he “felt really good,” but acknowledged that “the next two stages will be hard but if I keep having good legs, I can stay in the top five. I’m not afraid of the 46-km time trial. At the Tour de France, I finished only 28 seconds behind Andy Schleck and one minute behind Contador, that gives me confidence.”
Finally, David Millar, who together with Garmin-Transitions team mate David Zabriskie had jumped off the front of the peloton to bridge a gap to lone escapee Niki Terpstra of Milram, revealed the reasons for the pair looking to get away.
“On Thursday evening, I bet with David Zabriskie that we would break away together. We’ve done a time trial effort to catch Niki Terpstra and I’ve believed we could go for the stage win when our advantage was over 12 minutes. Our joke has been close to become a success!
"I’m gearing up for the world championship and I need stages like this,” added the Scot, who together with Cervelo TestTeam’s Jeremy Hunt will be supporting Mark Cavendish in his bid for the rainbow jersey in Australia next month. Referring to the escape, Millar concluded, “I’ll do it again.”
All pictures copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.