In another breathtaking finale, Philippe Gilbert (BMC) got the better of race leader Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) after the duo escaped the field in a tortuous final three kilometres in Barcelona on Sunday.
It was not a complicated stage, or at least it wasn’t a complicated race until after the four rider break – with obligatory Andalucia rider – was caught with a little under 25km to go to the finish.
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The break – Bertjan Lindeman (Vacansoleil), Martin Maaskant (Garmin Sharp), Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis) and Javier Chacon (Andalucia) had dangled and struggled into a strong wind and a hot day, but with Katusha riding and Argos Shimano showing confidence in their sprinter on a winning streak John Degenkolb, the quartet was doomed.
Into the suburbs of Barcelona teams took it in turn to keep the pace high as the race headed to the famous Montjuic climb above the city.
Despite the Tour finishing a stage in a similar manner here in 2009, it was as though nobody was quite sure what sort of finish it was going to be.
Might it be a bunch gallop? Might it suit Philippe Gilbert of BMC or his team mate and Eneco Tour stage winner Alessandro Ballan? It was that kind of finale – nervous and narrow and with steep climbs and fast descents that they thrive on. Funnily enough, it suited race leader Joaquin Rodriguez as well as Ballan and Gilbert.
In fact there were all manner of attacks in the final six kilometers, with even Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Tinkoff) putting in an effort which was brought back by Sergio Henao of Sky, ever attentive to Christopher Froome’s big rival.
But, although Contador’s effort came to nothing, the attack of Ballan was the one which set off the winning move. Ballan got a gap of 20 or so bike lengths but seemed to fade and, with 3.6km to the line, Rodriguez shot out from the disintegrating bunch, chased in turn by Gilbert.
This pair overtook Ballan and, having paused to assess the situation, pressed on, plunged down the descent and attacked the final uphill kilometre with barely eight seconds of a lead over what was left of the peloton – only 42 riders shared the same time, at 12 seconds from the stage winner.
The two shared most of the work to stay clear, but it was obvious that Rodriguez was more in need of time than a cup, champagne and flowers and Gilbert was much more in need of a stage win to help salve a season overflowing with disappointment.
Sure enough, ‘Purito’ put his head down and drove to the line inside the final kilometre while Gilbert bided his time and didn’t so much jump past the Spaniard as accelerate and offer him his wheel to help drag Rodriguez to the line – rarely has the understanding between two riders of their different needs been more explicit.
“It’s been a year since I last won, almost to the day, at the GP Wallonnie,” said Gilbert later, “and this is a special win because I’ve had a hard season. I’ve had a lot of critics in the Belgian press and I’ve tried to ignore it all and let my results speak for me.
“I’ve been fighting hard since the start of the season and this finish was perfect for me. The plan for us was that Ballan should attack first and if he stayed clear that would be fine but if he was caught I was there for the sprint. Ballan got a gap but started to fade, so when Rodriguez attacked, I took my chance and went after him.
“We both rode full gas down the descent and just kept riding. I knew that Joaquin needed the time and I knew that I was quicker than him in a sprint, so, like I say, it was a perfect stage for me.”
All in all, it was a good day for Rodriguez. He added an extra 13 seconds of a cushion to his overall lead and took over the lead in the green points jersey – John Degenkolb is now second – into the bargain.
It’s true that the weather has cooled after a first week with some days in the 40s, but it’s unlikely that Rodriguez is going to need two jerseys to keep him warm.
It was another spectacular finale, with the race leader and Contador attacking inside the final four kilometers of a stage many expected to end in a bunch sprint, which says a lot about the spirit of the race.
There’s another two weeks of this to go and, as has already been gleefully pointed out, there have been more attacks by the front runners in the first seven days of the Vuelta than there were during the entire three weeks of the Tour de France. The numbers never lie…
Vuelta a Espana 2012, stage nine, Andorra – Barcelona
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC 196km in 4-45-28
2. Joaquin Rodriguez (Sp) Katusha at same time
3. Paolo Tiralongo (It) Astana at 7sec
4. Tomas Marczynski (Pol) Vacansoleil at 9sec
5. Daniele Bennati (It) Radioshack
6. Alejandro Valverde (Sp) Movistar
7. Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat all same time
8. Gorka Verdugo (Sp) Euskaltel at 12 seconds
9. Gianni Meersman (Bel) Lotto Belisol
10. Igor Anton (Sp) Euskaltel
22. Alberto Contador (Sp) Saxobank Tinkoff
26. Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin Sharp
30. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R
44. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky all same time
121. Ben Swift (GBr) Sky at 2-54
151. Ian Stannard (GBr) at 5-11
General classification after stage nine
1. Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha 1392.4km in 34-44-55
2. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky at 53secs
3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank at 1-00
4. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 1-07
5. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 2-01
6. Dani Moreno (Sp) Katusha at 2-08
7. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R at 2-34
8. Igor Anton (Sp) Euskaltel Euskadi at 3-07
9. Laurens Ten Dam (Neth) Rabobank at 3-18
10. Bauke Mollema (Neth) Rabobank at 3-27
Argo-Shimano lead the bunch
Chris Froome taking it easy during the stage
The break ploughs on
No rain in Spain in this year
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Startlist
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Reports
Stage one report: Movistar win team time trial
Stage two report: Degenkolb wins, Swift third
Stage three report: Valverde victorious after Contador attacks
Stage four report: Rodriguez takes over lead after Valverde crashes
Stage five report:Degenkolb wins again
Stage six report: Froome gains time on Contador
Stage seven report: Degenkolb makes it three at Vuelta
Stage eight report: Valverde doubles his score in Andorra
Stage nine report: Gilbert pips Rodriguez in Barcelona
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Route info and analysis
Vuelta a Espana 2012 route revealed
Vuelta 2012 route leaves time triallists out in the cold