Cannondale's Daniele Ratto, one of five men who formed today's break, took the Vuelta Stage 14 win this afternoon on one of the most eagerly anticipated stages of the race as it headed into Andorra and the High Pyrenees. Four big climbs featuring on today's route, played out under pouring rain and cold temperatures, with a summit finish on the Collada de la Gallina. Race leader Vincenzo Nibali of Astana finished second, nearly 4 minutes behind the winner, but extends his overall lead.
Nibali had tracked RadioShack-Leopard's Chris Horner after the pair got away from other overall contenders such as Katusha's Joaquin Rodiguez and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar on the final climb, and overhauled the American shortly before the finish.
Horner, however, moves from fourth to second in the overall standings with Saxo-Tinkoff's Nicolas Roche, second on General Classification this morning, slipping to sixth after getting distanced on that last climb.
Another member of the break, Belkin's Luis Leon Sanchez, was one of the victims of today's filthy weather during a stage that featured four big categorised ascents, abandoning the race after coming down with hypothermia, having crashed on a descent shortly beforehand. Ratto's team leader, two-time Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso, also succumbed to hypothermia.
Today is the second stage in succession that a young rider of whom much is expected has taken victory against more heralded names who also featured in the break; among the 23-year-old Ratto's companions today was world champion Philippe Gilbert, while yesterday saw Argos-Shimano's Warren Barguil, aged 21, win from a strong group of ten riders on Stage 13.
Also in today’s break, which unlike yesterday’s formed very early on in the 155.7km stage from Baga, were Steve Chainel of AG2R-La Mondiale and a second Belkin rider, Graeme Brown, someone better known for his exploits on the track – he’s a double Olympic champion – or as a sprinter, than in the mountains.
The quintet had a lead of more than 8 minutes as they crossed the border into Andorra, the route taking them the length of the principality to the duty free haven Pas de la Casa on the French border before heading back via a different and more taxing route to finish close to the frontier with Spain.
Unusually, the toughest of the four categorised climbs today was the first the race tackled – the ‘Especial,’ equivalent to the French Hors Categorie, ascent of the Port de Envalira.
Brown and Chainel had been dropped by the time Ratto, Gilbert and Sanchez had crested the summit, and behind Katusha were setting the pace at the front of the peloton as they sought to reduce the gap, which had drifted out beyond 12 minutes.
That advantage had been cut to less than 8 minutes by the time Ratto, now out on his own, began the ascent of the Coll de Ordino, having used the opportunity of the descent from the Port de Envalira to distance himself from Gilbert, while Sanchez crashed on the way down.
Behind, Valverde, Vuelta champion in 2009, was struggling on the ascent of the Ordino, and risked losing big time to his rivals in the overall standings. He’d eventually finish sixth, 50 seconds behind Nibali, the man who succeeded him to the Vuelta title in 2010, but with two climbs still to come it could have been much worse.
The first of those final two climbs was the Alto de la Comella, where Valverde, with team mate Jose Herrada helping him, was desperately trying to get back to the group containing the overall contenders, while Katusha continued to try and force the pace to prevent him from doing so.
He would pass most of them on the way up the final climb, where he had taken the stage win over Joaquin Rodriguez and Alberto Contador 12 months ago.
He remains third overall, although he shipped nearly a minute to Nibali today, a margin that even with a week remaining may prove impossible to turn around.
Today, however, belonged to Ratto, who previously had just one professional victory to his name – the GP Industria & Artigianato. He now finds himself unexpectedly leading the mountains classification in a Grand Tour.
This evening, the rider who hails from the southern suburbs of Turin, has a Grand Tour stage win in his palmarès, and rescues a day for Cannondale on which its hope for this year’s overall, Basso, exited the race.
After cliching his win, Ratto said there hadn't been a specific plan for him to get into the break specifically to target the win today, and was more concerned about the loss of his team leader.
"No, the idea was that I’d be away to help Ivan in some downhills when the favorites would catch us. But the peloton let a lot of time to the breakaway. I was feeling good for a couple of days.
"Unfortunately I got to know after the finish that Ivan had pulled out. He was very lean while I’m the opposite. The extra fat I carry has helped me resisting to the cold today. But my victory is a poor consolation price for Ivan’s withdrawal. I’m sure he was going to finish on the podium.
"I didn’t believe much in my chances. When I remained alone in the lead, there were two climbs left. I’ve made a difference on the wet downhills.
"Riding a motorbike has made me used to putting my foot out as I did today to avoid crashing. At the bottom of the last one, I knew that I had eight minutes lead.
"At that point, it was clear that except if I got a serious hungerflat, I could win the stage. I’ve been scared as I felt I was cramping a bit but I’ve managed to deal with that. It’s a special moment for me to succeed in the mountains.
"Normally I’m a sprinter," he added. "The other days at the Vuelta I was taking part in the sprints and now I’m the king of the mountains! But don’t worry, I’ll wear the polka dot jersey for one day only."
Chris Horner & Vincenzo Nibali (copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson)
“Today it’s been hard! I’ve suffered a lot," said Nibali afterwards.
"Slowly but surely, I’ve found myself again. I’ve fought till the end.
"I’ve made an important step in the overall classification but there are still some riders not far down. I’m pleased with today’s outcome but there are still many hard stages left.
"At the Vuelta, there’s always something new that might happen, so I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.”
His rival Horner, whow has spent two days in the race leader's red jersey during the race, reflected: “This was hard and dangerous. The cold was for everyone but my bike was always shaking in the downhills.
"I’ve thought I was going to die. I’ve never been so cold.
"Nibali was very strong. I’m happy that I was the only rider able to stay with him. I would have liked to finish ahead of him but I guess I have to be satisfied with what I’ve done.”
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.