Daniele Ratto (Cannondale) put in a performance as brave as it was impressive to win Saturday's weather-stricken stage 14, while fellow Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) finished second and extended his overall lead.
On paper the Pyrenean stage looked like one of the most challenging at this year's Vuelta with its four categorised climbs, but the dramatic conditions further exacerbated its difficulty, adding treacherous descents and freezing cold summits to the steep slopes and mountain top finish.
However, Ratto remained unperturbed, making it into the break of the day, going clear with Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Luis Leon Sanchez (Belkin) on the hors-category Port de Envalira, before finding himself alone at the front having dropped the former on the descent and with the latter retiring having crashed and suffered from hypothermia due to the cold.
The 23-year-old's victory was one of courage more than class, as demonstrated by his unorthodox descending style; to balance himself, he stuck one of his legs out and hovered his foot just above the tarmac when turning corners. The peloton's caution enabled him to maintain an eight minute gap going into the final climb, which he never looked like ceding. It was has been an uplifting tour for Italian cycling, Ratto may just be the bright new star the nation is hoping for.
Up and down for Cannondale
It was a bittersweet day, however, for Cannondale, whose leader Ivan Basso was forced to retire having also suffered from the cold and potential hypothermia. The cold shaped how the race unfolded, making it more of an attrition contest than one full of attacking riding, but was exhilarating nonetheless.
The peloton had thinned out even before the final climb and continued to do so as the riders reached its slopes. Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) was one of those to be shelled, and ultimately finished three and a half minutes behind Nibali, slipping to sixth overall.
Today demonstrated to the Irishman just how many obstacles can lie in the way of those wishing to compete for the top placings in a grand tour, but, though the red jersey now looks beyond, a place on the podium is still achievable.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was another to suffer from the conditions, and his case was dropped on the descent of the Port de Envalira. However, he overcame whatever it was that ailed him, and went on to finish sixth in the stage, limiting his losses to Nibali to less than a minute.
Horner still in contention
The only rider to stay with Nibali was Chris Horner (Radioshack-Leopard). The decisive moment occurred when the American's teammate Robert Kiserlowski accelerated with one final effort only a few kilometres to the finish, leaving Nibali and Horner alone to fight it out to the finish. They crossed the line virtually together, with the Italian just a couple of second ahead, while next in were the Spanish trio of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Valverde.
As such, Valverde and Rodriguez remain in contention, but the race is shaping up to be a two-way tussle between Nibali and Horner. Tomorrow's stage, which features another four categorised climbs and mountain top finish, will form yet another important battle ground in the race for the red jersey.
Vuelta a Espana 2013, stage 14: Baga to Collada de la Gallina, 155.7km
1. Daniele Ratto (Ita) Cannondale in 4-24-00
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana at 3-53
3. Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack-Leopard at 3-55
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 4-11
5. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4-19
6. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 4-43
7. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ at 4-46
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r at same time
9. Mikel Landa (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 5-17
10. Leopold Konig (Cze) NetApp-Endura at 5-21
Overall classification after stage 14
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana in 53-56-49
2. Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack-Leopard at 50 secs
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 1-42
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 2-57
5. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r at 3-43
6. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Saxo-Tinkoff at 4-06
7. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ at 4-34
8. Leopold Konig (Cze) NetApp-Endura at 5-42
9. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha at 6-28
10. Tanel Kangert (Est) Astana at 6-45
Kiserlovski, Horner and Nibali
Rodriguez and Sanchez
Ratto takes the win
Vuelta a Espana 2013: Coverage index
Vuelta a Espana 2013: Stage reports
Stage 13: Barguil takes first pro victory
Stage 12: Gilbert ends rainbow curse with Vuelta stage 12 win
Stage 11: Cancellara issues Worlds warning shot by winning time trial
Stage 10: Horner wins stage and regains race lead
Stage nine: Moreno wins stage to take race lead
Stage eight: Konig wins, Roche takes leadStage seven: Stybar wins from escape
Stage six: Morkov wins after Martin's day-long escape
Stage five: Matthews wins in Lago de Sanabria
Stage four: Moreno wins tough stage
Stage three: Horner takes charge with stage win and overall lead
Stage two: Nicolas Roche attacks to win
Stage one: Astana takes opening team time trial
Vuelta a Espana 2013: Photo galleries
Stage 13 photo gallery
Stage 12 photo gallery
Stage 11 photo gallery
Stage 10 photo gallery
Stage nine photo gallery
Stage eight photo gallery
Stage seven photo gallery
Stage six photo gallery
Stage five photo gallery
Stage four photo gallery
Stage three photo gallery
Stage two photo gallery
Stage one photo gallery
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.
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