Alejandro Valverde came close to cracking on the 2009 Vuelta a Espana's third summit finish on stage 14, but finally recovered to strengthen his overall lead.
The Caisse d'Epargne leader said afterwards that he is now 70 percent sure of taking his first ever major Tour, and it's hard to disagree. Despite nearly cracking on the brutally steep final climb of La Pandera, the Spaniard fought back strongly after almost all his top rivals attacked him.
A move half-way up La Pandera begun by Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), then followed up by Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas) saw Valverde struggle and lose nearly 30 seconds in less than a kilometre. Then when Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) also dropped the Spaniard, it looked as if Valverde was in serious trouble.
But the Caisse d'Epargne rider slowly regained ground and began catching and passing each of his rivals in turn. First to be caught and passed was Evans, then Basso, and finally Valverde reached Gesink with about two kilometres to go. Of the favourites, only Mosquera and Sanchez managed to stay out of Valverde's clutches.
Valverde even dropped Gesink close to the line to increase his lead over the Dutchman by a few seconds, whilst Sanchez has moved up to third overall. Incredibly, in what had looked like the worse moment of the race so far for Valverde, the Valverde has come out on top again.
The overall classification will now probably remain stable until the race's final four days, which include two mountainous stages and a 30 kilometre time trial in Toledo.
In all the fuss over Valverde and co, it almost went un-noticed that Italy's Damiano Cunego (Lampre) had taken his second mountain top win of the Vuelta. Cunego formed part of a nine-rider day-long break and then soloed away for victory some 15 kilometres from the line.
The Italian admitted later that he had deliberately lost time on the stage to Sierra Nevada in order to have more chance of getting in a break, a tactic that paid off in full.
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Stage 14, Granada-La Pandera, 157km
1. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre in 4-04-23
2. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Saxo Bank at 2-23
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3-08
4. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 3-10
5. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 3-22
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 3-26
7. Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto at 3-40
8. Gonzalo Rabunal (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 3-46
9. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 3-48
10. Juan Jose Cobo (Spa) Fuji-Servetto at same time.
Overall classification after stage 14
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
2. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
4. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas
5. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia
Alejandro Valverde suffers on stage 14, before miraculously recovering to overhaul his rivals
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Latest news and features
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Cycling Weekly's full coverage index
Freire set for retirement in 2010
Unlucky Horner crashes out of Vuelta
Wegelius abandons the Vuelta
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Who will win?
Vinokourov back with Astana for the Vuelta
Britain and Ireland well represented in Vuelta
2009 Vuelta route favours climbers
Cycling Weekly's Rider Profiles: Index
Vuelta a Espana 2009: Stage reports
Stage 13: Unlucky Evans loses time in Vuelta's high mountains
Stage12: Hesjedal wins second Vuelta stage for Garmin
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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