Alberto Contador, who spent the first two weeks of this year's Vuelta attempting to drop Joaquin Rodriguez whenever the road headed uphill, today put in a stunning ride on the flat to win Stage 17 and take over the lead of the race as it heads into its closing days. The Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank rider had already distanced Rodriguez when he put in a storming attack from the lead group alongside former team mate Paolo Tiralongo of Astana, then rode the final 13 kilometres alone to finish a few seconds ahead of Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, who moves to second overall.
Rodriguez, who lost the Giro d'Italia in May on the final day after spending ten days of that race in the maglia rosa, has spent even longer in the Vuelta's leader's jersey this year, but will almost certainly miss out once again on a maiden Grand Tour victory, losing more than two and a half minutes to Contador today.
The 2012 Vuelta was already destined to be a memorable race as a result of some thrilling battles over the past fortnight, but today's stage was simply sensational. Should Contador go on to take his second Vuelta, adding to his 2008 victory, this will be remembered as the day he won it. Should Rodriguez end his career without a Grand Tour win, it will be viewed as the day - perhaps alongside the time trial that concluded the Giro in Milan - when he let his best chance slip.
While today's stage featured a summit finish, the Category 2 ascent to Fuente Dé was viewed as much less taxing than those that had featured in the three stages preceding yesterday's rest day, but the damage to Rodriguez's GC hopes had already been done prior to that climb starting.
In last year's Giro d'Italia, Contador gifted Tiralongo his first ever professional victory when the pair found themselves alone on the Stage 19 climb of the Macugnaga.
Tiralongo would subsequently testify on behalf of his friend and former Astana team mate at the Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing that resulted in the Spaniard being banned for six months earlier this year for his positive test for clenbuterol in the 2010 Tour de France.
Tiralongo continued to stand by Contador, dedicating his Giro stage victory at Rocca di Cambio in this year's race to him, but if he still owed him a debt for that 2011 stage win, it was repaid in full this afternoon as the pair set team rivalries aside and went hell for leather, attacking from the leading group with around 20km of today's stage left to ride.
Rodriguez had been distanced by Contador 30km earlier when the latter slipped into that front group, but if it was the Saxo Bank rider's move that had put the race leader into difficulties, it was Valverde who delivered the coup de grace, his attack at around 12 kilometres out leaving the Katusha rider with no way back and what must have been a very lonely ride to the finish with two of Contador's team mates sitting on his wheel.
There is one more summit finish to come in the race, on the Bola del Mundo on Saturday, and it's one Contador knows better than anyone, close enough to his home outside Madrid for him to ride up it in the morning and be home in time for lunch.
Asked afterwards about how he had managed to seize control of the race, Contador confessed, "I’ve attacked instinctively. I believe this day of racing has shocked a few!
"Truly, I’ve ridden a bit like a kamikaze. But I had to try. I felt something like an angel and a devil on my shoulders. One was telling me: 'Attack,' the other one said: 'Don’t attack.' I followed the right advice. I’ve been scared to lose my advantage in the last fifteen kilometers because I hadn’t eaten a lot. I was afraid that other riders could catch me.
He admitted that physically, "I wasn’t on one of my best days. But my will to succeed was enormous. Second place isn’t bad but you always have to try and win, even though many people thought it was out of reach for me.
"My attack with 50 km to go was of an absolute madness. I told my three team-mates via radio to go “full gas”, and nothing more because sometimes the radios are pirated by other teams. And I’ve climbed with the same conviction I had up to l’Alpe d’Huez in the 2011 Tour de France.
He said that today's victory was "one of the three most important of my career. The first one was at the 2005 Tour Down Under when I resumed racing after my big accident. The second one was the 2007 Paris-Nice.
"It’s not finished yet but Joaquim Rodriguez must be congratulated for what he has done during this Vuelta. I wasn’t able to drop him off in the steepest uphill finishes, so every day I had to think of the tactic for the next day. I’ve had to calculate a lot the time not to lose and the right spot for attacking him."
“I didn’t expect that," reflected Rodriguez after losing the race lead. "I’m sad because I’ve lost the Vuelta. That’s what we’re here for: sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t but it’s sport.
"The stage to Fuente Dé will make history and I’m proud to be part of it. Contador has demonstrated to being the strongest and his team as well. When I’ve seen him climbing, the disaster that I was going to encounter didn’t cross my mind. We didn’t imagine what was going to happen, no one did.
"I’ve experienced different states of mind in the last fifty kilometres. From the Collado La Hoz, I just it would come well in the downhill with the help of riders from Movistar but it didn’t. Today, for sure, it’ll be hard for me to sleep!”
Vuelta Stage 17 Result
1 CONTADOR, Alberto STB 4h 29' 20''
2 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV + 6''
3 HENAO, Sergio Luis SKY + 6''
4 VERDUGO, Gorka EUS + 6''
5 NOCENTINI, Rinaldo ALM + 19''
6 BAKELANTS, Jan RNT + 55''
7 INTXAUSTI, Beñat MOV + 1' 13''
8 GENIEZ, Alexandre ARG + 1' 40''
9 TIRALONGO, Paolo AST + 2' 13''
10 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT + 2' 38''
11 HERNÁNDEZ, Jesús STB + 2' 38''
12 QUINTANA, Nairo MOV + 2' 38''
13 JEANNESSON, Arnold FDJ + 3' 03''
14 CUNEGO, Damiano LAM + 3' 18''
15 TEN DAM, Laurens RAB + 4' 05''
16 LANDA, Mikel EUS + 4' 17''
17 NIEMIEC, Przemyslaw LAM + 4' 48''
18 TALANSKY, Andrew GRS + 4' 48''
19 MEERSMAN, Gianni LTB + 4' 48''
20 GESINK, Robert RAB + 4' 48''
Last man home on Stage 17
179 MEYER, Travis OGE + 25' 49''
General Classification after Stage 17
1 CONTADOR, Alberto STB 68h 07' 54''
2 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV + 1' 52''
3 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT + 2' 28''
4 FROOME, Christopher SKY + 9' 40''
5 MORENO, Daniel KAT + 11' 36''
6 GESINK, Robert RAB + 12' 06''
7 TEN DAM, Laurens RAB + 12' 55''
8 TALANSKY, Andrew GRS + 13' 06''
9 ANTON, Igor EUS + 13' 49''
10 INTXAUSTI, Beñat MOV + 14' 10''
Points Classification after Stage 17
1 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 170
2 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV 159
3 CONTADOR, Alberto STB 152
4 DEGENKOLB, John ARG 112
5 FROOME, Christopher SKY 93
Mountains Classification after Stage 17
1 CLARKE, Simon OGE 38
2 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin KAT 36
3 DE GENDT, Thomas VCD 33
4 VALVERDE, Alejandro MOV 31
5 CONTADOR, Alberto STB 28
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