Alberto Contador has taken a giant step towards the final victory in the Tour of Spain with a stunning lone victory on the Angliru that has propelled the 25-year-old into the overall lead.
However predictable Contador's win on the Angliru might seem - as well as his now more than probable victory in Madrid - the Astana pro's success was well-deserved. The overwhelming favourite after his victory in the Giro and Tour-free summer, Contador has shown he knows how to handle the pressure when put under the media spotlight - and Saturday's stage win was taken in style.
Contador was already the most consistent climber in the Pyrenees without really finishing off the opposition. But the Astana rider has always said that the Vuelta would be won and lost in the mountains of northern Spain.
To that end, Astana upped the pace relentlessly on the approach roads to the Angliru. On the second-last climb, the Cordal, the front group was squeezed to less than 50. Then on the dangerous descent, promising young climber Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) eliminated himself from the running when he crashed out of the race, breaking his collarbone.
The riders barely had time to recover before they hit the Angliru and first Astana?s Andreas Klöden and then local rider Jose Luis Rubiera wound up the pace to the foot of the steepest part of the climb. At that point previous leader Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) cracked.
Astana's Levi Leipheimer showed for once and for all that he is on the Vuelta to work for Alberto Contador with a brutal acceleration as the road?s gradient reared to 21 percent. Sastre - Contador?s last serious rival for the overall - was dropped almost immediately, leaving only Leipheimer, Contador, Valverde and Caisse D?Epargne climber Joaquim Rodriguez in the front group.
Valverde launched an all-out attack in search of the stage win, but the only effect was to squeeze Leipheimer out of the front group. Then when Contador turned up the heat five kilometres from the summit, Valverde suddenly found he had miscalculated his strength - and slid backwards.
That left Contador with only Rodriguez to deal with, and with three kilometres to go he went clear with one of his typically powerful uphill accelerations that brooked no opposition. Johan Bruyneel has said that Contador's attacks in the mountains are even more powerful than Armstrong's, and to judge from how he charged away from Rodriguez, it would be difficult to disagree.
Intentionally or not, Contador had timed his move for just before the Cueñas de las Cabras, the steepest section of the entire Anglirue. When faced with a pure climber and the toughest section of Spain?s toughest climb, Rodriguez had no chance of regaining contact - meaning the stage, and the race lead, was Contador's.
Contador continued to widen the gap in the final three kilometres, weaving his way through the packed lines of fans and finally crossing the line with his trademark victory salute of firing off an imaginary pistol. Second across the line was Valverde, just 42 seconds back - a remarkable ride for the Spaniard - with Rodriguez third at 1-58 seconds.
?I couldn?t miss out on an opportunity like today,? Contador said afterwards. ?The Angliru is a mythical climb and it?s the most important stage of the Vuelta.?
? I did what I had to do which was to drop Carlos [Sastre]. I?ve got the lead, and from now on I?ll be riding defensively.?
Contador?s position overall is far stronger than at any point during the Giro he won this May, given that team-mate Leipheimer is second overall at 1-07.
Already a winner of the time trial at Ciudad Real, Leipheimer has proved on the Angliru that he is more than a match for Contador?s rivals, even if disaster were to threaten the Spaniard between here and Madrid.
?It?s not over yet, but I?m a lot closer to victory,? Contador pointed out.
But after Saturday?s performance on the Angliru, it?s very difficult to see who could challenge Contador - now just seven days away from becoming the first Spaniard ever to win the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta.
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