Canada's Ryder Hesjedal took Garmin-Slipstream's second stage win in the Tour of Spain on the summit finish of Velefique. Overall, a late attack by Gesink put Valverde and Evans under pressure, with the top three now less than 20 seconds apart.
Hesjedal formed part of an 12-rider move that went away in the first hour of a highly mountainous stage deep in the desert of Almeria, featuring a double ascent of the 13 kilometre Velefique climb, as well as the 22 kilometre Calar Alto. In other words, there was barely a metre of flat all day, with the day's best known victim being Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov, part of the early break until he abandoned.
A gutsy attack by David Garcia Dapena (Xacobeo-Galicia) as the leading break closed on the Velefique a second time looked as if it might allow the Spaniard to add a second Vuelta stage to his palmares.
But as Hesjedal explained later, rather than try to follow Garcia Dapena, the former Canandian national champ. preferred to keep a steady rhythm on the Velefique's interminable succession of hairpin bends.
The Garmin-Slipstream pro finally caught Garcia Dapena with about six kilometres to go, and the two riders, both clearly near exhaustion, edged their way to the summit. Finally Hesjedal powered past the Spaniard for Garmin's second win in three days.
"His attack was impressive, but I kept up a good tempo behind and got rid of the other guys," Hesjedal said later.
"I just kept going steady and rode my own race all the way and still had enough at the end."
Asked if he would be trying for more mountain stage wins, Hesjedal answered "I've no idea, I'm still in shock that I managed to win this one!"
But it was a close-run thing. Whilst Caisse D'Epargne and a strong headwind combined to keep attacks in the main group to a minimum for three-quarters of the Velefique, they were unable to stop first Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) and then Robert Gesink (Rabobank) going clear in the final kilometres. And Gesink's attack was so strong they came within a whisker of catching the two riders ahead.
Gesink's attack was so late he could only take 10 seconds on Valverde, but it also earned him an eight second time bonus for third place. It also bodes well for his chances on Sierra Nevada, a climb he knows better and which the Dutchman says suits him more than Velefique.
Overall the Rabobank rider is now just 18 seconds behind Valverde, and 11 seconds down on second-placed Evans. It's an amazingly small gap of 12 days of racing, and an indication of just how finely balanced the top riders strength appears to be, although Gesink is clearly on the rise.
The podium is looking increasingly like a battle between these three riders, then. But after the first of three days in the mountains, the question of who will be on top in Madrid is far from being resolved. Interestingly, it would seem that the 23-year-old Gesink, rather than Valverde or Evans, is the strongest in the mountains.
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Stage 12, Almeria-Alto de Velefique, 179.3km
1. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Slipstream
2. David Garcia (Spa)
Xacobeo Galicia at 1sec
3. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 6sec
Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 6sec
5. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 16sec
6. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
7. Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto
8. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas
9. Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Slipstream
10. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi all same time.
Overall classification after stage 12
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
2. Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto at 7sec
3. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 18sec
4. Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Slipstream at 51sec
5. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 53sec
6. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1-03
7. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 2-13
8. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 2-14
9. Danel Navarro (Spa) Astana at 3-53
10. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 4-01
Alejandro Valverde stays in the race lead
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Latest news and features
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Cycling Weekly's full coverage index
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Unlucky Horner crashes out of Vuelta
Wegelius abandons the Vuelta
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Who will win?
Vinokourov back with Astana for the Vuelta
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2009 Vuelta route favours climbers
Cycling Weekly's Rider Profiles: Index
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Stage reports
Stage 11: Farrar takes first grand tour victory
Stage 10: Gerrans takes breakaway victory
Stage nine: Cesar wins as Valverde leads in la Vuelta
Stage eight: Cunego takes first mountain stage of 2009 Vuelta
Stage seven: Cancellara outpaces Millar in TT
Stage six: Bozic surprises sprint rivals to take win
Stage five: Greipel wins again and takes race lead
Stage four: Greipel wins after big crash wipes out bunch
Stage three: Henderson wins stage
Stage two: Ciolek takes first road stage, Hammond third
Stage one: Cancellara wins Vuelta opener
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Photos
Stage 11 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 10 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage nine photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage eight photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage six photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage five photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage four photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage three photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage two photo gallery by Graham WatsonStage one photo gallery by Graham Watson
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