Two-time Vuelta winner Denis Menchov of Katusha put in a burst of acceleration close to the line to drop Team Sky's Richie Porte and win Stage 20 of the 2012 race on the Bola del Mondo outside Madrid today. However, it's another former winner, Alberto Contador of Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, who will make the headlines, poised tomorrow to add a second victory to his 2008 success just a month after returning from a six-month ban.
Porte, Menchov and Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Kevin De Weert had shaken off the final three fellow members of what had earlier been a 20-strong escape group with 9km of that final ascent left to ride, the climb having first featured in the Vuelta as recently as 2010 but set to become a regular feature of the race especially given its proximity to the capital.
With 3km to go, Porte and Menchov dropped De Weert, with the Team Sky rider, winner of the best young rider's competition at the 2010 Giro d'Italia and a key member of the team that supported Bradley Wiggins as he rode to Tour de France glory in July, doing all the work on the final part of the climb, the Russian happy to sit on his wheel.
Once Menchov decided to attack, however, with the line almost in sight, the 27-year-old Tasmanian Porte had nothing left in the tank, the Katusha rider winning with ease.
In what has been one of the more exciting Grand Tours of recent years, the final climb saw fireworks between the three men at the top of the overall standings, Contador, who led by 1 minute 35 seconds this morning from Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, with Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez, who led the race for a fortnight before losing the lead to Contador on Wednesday, another 46 seconds back.
It was Rodriguez who attacked on the steepest part of the ascent, putting Valverde in trouble but it wasn't enough to take second place off him as the Movistar rider managed to recover towards the top of the climb.
Contador was also struggling, dropped first by Rodriguez then Valverde, but having lost a little over half a minute to the latter still leads by more than a minute ahead of tomorrow's procession into Madrid.
“It’s been a hard and complicated stage," said Contador afterwards. "Katusha and Movistar looked very motivated to send a few riders in the breakaway and make my race difficult. Fortunately, my team did an extraordinary work and then, Euskaltel rode to win the stage with Igor Anton.
"I became worried when Alejandro Valverde tried to attack. I had to respond. Once I passed that moment, I was closer to winning the Vuelta. On the other hand, when Joaquim attacked with 1 kilometre [actually 1.9km] to go, I knew the difference would be minimal, as I remembered how it went two years ago between Ezequiel Mosquera and Vincenzo Nibali. I felt a big pain in my legs but so many fans encouraged me that I managed to make it. Now I want to enjoy what I’ve achieved.”
“It’s been an extremely hard stage, not only because of the course and the speed but also the climate conditions," reflected Valverde. "I’ve had a hard time in the downhill of the first climb because I was really cold. It was raining. The team has been great in supporting me. Slowly but surely, I found good sensations again.
"In the Navacerrada, I had to try because nobody knew what could happen. I didn’t know Bola del Mundo, except in video, but I knew what to expect. When ‘Purito’ attacked, I set my own rhythm. In the last kilometer, I pursued Alberto because I didn’t want ‘Purito’ to take the second place overall away from me.”
Another jersey effectively decided today was that of the mountains classification, which assuming he makes it to Madrid safely will be won by Orica-GreenEdge's Simon Clarke, who got into that early 20-man escape group and picked up enough points on the first three climbs of the 170-kilometre stage from La Faisanera Golf to give himself an unassailable lead, whatever happened on the Bola del Mundo.
“As good as I could be, a lot of luck was needed for collecting enough points at the top of the climbs," said Clarke. "I gave myself every chance I had. I was so nervous for trying to get in the breakaway, since it took about two hours on many previous stages for a group to go. I thought it was gonna be near impossible.
"I had to not worry about what [Thomas] De Gendt or [David] Moncoutié was going to do but just ride my race, as I knew that Rodriguez was going to get points at the finish. I only had two points lead. If I wasn’t in the breakaway, it was game over.
"In the end, it worked, but it’s been a lot of stress. But I’m not a climber, I’m an opportunist! I took the opportunities full time at the Vuelta. I always looked for the breakthrough result and it came with a stage win and a jersey. It finally came through. It’s huge!”
The Australian was one of many riders to struggle on that brutal final climb as he paid for his earlier efforts, and in a touching show of sportsmanship was helped over the line by AG2R-La Mondiale's Nicolas Roche, who himself will be joining Vuelta champion elect Contador at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank next season.
Vuelta Stage 20 Result 1 MENCHOV, Denis KAT 4h 48' 48'' 2 PORTE, Richie SKY + 17'' 3 DE WEERT, Kevin OPQ + 42'' 4 KESSIAKOFF, Fredrik AST + 1' 16'' 5 SICARD, Romain EUS + 1' 39'' 6 CAPECCHI, Eros LIQ + 2' 30'' 7 BOUET, Maxime ALM + 2' 39'' 8 GESCHKE, Simon ARG + 3' 14'' 9 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT + 3' 31'' 10 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV + 3' 56'' 11 MACHADO, Tiago RNT + 4' 08'' 12 CONTADOR, Alberto STB + 4' 15'' 13 MORENO, Daniel KAT + 4' 15'' 14 ANTON, Igor EUS + 4' 24'' 15 TALANSKY, Andrew GRS + 4' 34'' 16 DE LA FUENTE, David CJR + 4' 37'' 17 PETERSON, Thomas GRS + 4' 38'' 18 GESINK, Robert RAB + 4' 38'' 19 FROOME, Christopher SKY + 4' 43'' 20 VERDUGO, Gorka EUS + 4' 43'' Last man home on Stage 20 175 KREDER, Raymond GRS + 34' 37'' General Classification after Stage 20 1 CONTADOR, Alberto STB 82h 14' 52'' 2 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV + 1' 16'' 3 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT + 1' 37'' 4 FROOME, Christopher SKY + 10' 16'' 5 MORENO, Daniel KAT + 11' 29'' 6 GESINK, Robert RAB + 12' 23'' 7 TALANSKY, Andrew GRS + 13' 28'' 8 TEN DAM, Laurens RAB + 13' 41'' 9 ANTON, Igor EUS + 14' 01'' 10 INTXAUSTI, Beñat MOV + 16' 13' Points Classification after Stage 20 1 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 193 2 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV 189 3 CONTADOR, Alberto STB 161 4 DEGENKOLB, John ARG 124 5 FROOME, Christopher SKY 93 Mountains Classification after Stage 20 1 CLARKE, Simon OGE 63 2 DE LA FUENTE, David CJR 40 3 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 36 4 DE GENDT, Thomas VCD 33 5 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV 31
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.