Blazin' Saddles

Vuelta: Week two round-up

Blazin' Saddles

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After what was arguably the hardest conclusion to any Grand Tour stage in living memory, it's entirely understandable that the remaining 181 riders have the day off on Tuesday.

The 67th edition of the Vuelta is perfectly poised ahead of the final run of stages, with an all-Spanish podium virtually guaranteed and two riders — Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador — separated by just 28 seconds with four competitive stages remaining.

Since the first rest day, the Tour of Spain has really been about three superhuman Spanish riders, with varied combinations of Rodriguez, Contador and Alejandro Valverde finishing first, second and third on two occasions, 11th, 12th and 13th on one occasion and third, fourth and fifth on another.

Let's take a look back at how things have panned out in a thrilling second phase of the Vuelta...

Stage 10 — Ponteareas to Sanxenxo

It's a fourth "Yaaa!" for John Degenkolb as the German youngster sprints to yet another victory on a day John Gadret, suffering from gastrointestinal problems, adds some more colour to his Ag2R-La Mondiale brown shorts. Javier Aramendia (Caja Rural) picks up where he left off with a two-man break showing much symmetry: this year's most aggressive rider is joined by last year's Fighting Spirit maestro, Adrian Palomares of Andalucia. Despite the combative combo, the pair are swept up by Argos-Shimano with 30km to go and Degenkolb out-Yaaa's Nacer Bouhanni and Daniele Bennati for the win.

Stage 11 — Cambados to Pontevedra

Cast your eyes back to a time in Spain when Chris Froome stood poised in second place, just 53 seconds off the summit. Well, that all changes today in the race's only individual time trial. Billed as a three-way battle between Froome, Contador and Tony Martin, it is in fact the swift-speaking Swede Frederik Kessiakoff of Astana who pulls off a surprise win, beating Bert by 17 seconds as Froome takes third and Martin a lowly 11th. Rodriguez manages to hold on to the red jersey by one slender second after riding the ITT of his life to take seventh place on the admittedly hilly circuit. Valverde, not famed for his riding against the clock, takes a remarkable fourth on a day full of surprises.

Stage 12 — Vilagarcia de Arousa to Mirador de Ezaro

A flat stage concluding with a 2km ramp of up to 30 percent — there can only really be one winner, and Rodriguez duly obliges on the Ezaro Lookout above the Atlantic coast in Galicia. The race leader times things to perfection, catching the remnants of the day's break on the final climb before attacking Contador inside the last 200 metres to take the win and bonus seconds. Valverde takes third place — to start a remarkable sequence of consecutive places for the race's stand-out Spaniards. J-Rod now holds a 13-second lead over his main rival, with faltering Froome still less than a minute down in third.

Stage 13 — Santiago de Compostela to Ferrol

It's a fairytale for BMC's Steve Cummings, the British rider on the Tour de France not to win a stage, who attacks from a seven-man break inside the final 4km to take the biggest win of his career. For a second successive day, it takes around an hour of racing before the day's main break forms on the road — and for the second day running it includes the race's newly found most aggressive rider, Cam Meyer of GreenEdge. The presence of sprinter Elia Viviani and Ben Swift's lead-out man Juan Antonio Flecha amongst the escapees shows one truth: no one has the confidence of beating Degenkolb in a bunch sprint any more. Argos do their best to reel in the break, but with no help from anyone else, the task is futile and Cummings gets his chance to top a troubled season on a high. Not bad for a man who broke his pelvis in February... (eat your heart out, Andy Schleck).

Stage 14 — Palas de Rei to Puerto de Ancaras

In the first of three consecutive mountains-top finishes, Rodriguez weathers attack after attack from Contador to take the win ahead of his main rival and extend his lead to 22 seconds at the top. A puffed-out Froome - all elbows, knees, quivering shoulders and stupid sunglasses - grapples hard to take fifth place and drops to 1:41 behind Rodriguez, level with a resurgent Valverde. Dropped on the final climb, Froome fights back and even passes Rodriguez and Valverde under the red kite, but his last throw of the dice simply acts as a springboard for J-Rod, who counters, catches Contador and takes his third win of the race.

Stage 15 — La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga

A break of ten riders dominate the stage, with the unheralded Antonio Piedra of Spanish minnows Caja Rural taking the spoils after a solo attack on the final climb. But all eyes are on the Big Three as Rodriguez, Contador and Valverde treat the world to yet another scintillating display of metronomically attacking cycling. White jersey Contador puts in about 30 digs on the final climb, each of which is theatrically foiled by red Rodriguez. Valverde, the Green Bullet now in green, looks to have been cracked on numerous occasions but recovers (thanks to an injection of Class A Colombian pick-me-up in the guise of team-mate Nairo Quintana) to lead the trio over the line. Froome's chances of a podium finish take a battering when the Brit — as spent as George Osborne's coffers - loses more time and drops to 2:16 on GC.

Stage 16 — Gijon to Valgrande-Pajares/Cuitu Negru

Two Cat.1 climbs are followed by a the HC Puerto de Pajares, a 20km-long ascent which itself is capped with a new 3km ramp boasting gradients as high as 25 percent: this is sport at its most brutal, cycling in slow motion, an inhuman test unparalleled in any other stage seen in Grand Tours this year (or any year before). The Cuitu Negru finale makes the fabled Alto de L'Angliru look like a minor Cat.3 mound in comparison — and it makes this year's Tour de France route seem like a Sunday afternoon club ride in Holland. Dario Cataldo of Italy is the winner from a break, trickling home seven seconds ahead of Queen Stage Hog, Thomas de Gendt of Belgium. The race's Big Three put on another majestic yoyo-ing display as Contador uses all the weapons in his armoury before seeing Rodriguez pip past him to take third place (plus four bonus seconds) to extend his overall lead to 28 seconds. Valverde loses some time but looks a shoo-in for the podium after fourth-place Froome cracks once again. God knows how Bradley Wiggins would have coped on this climb — even aided by his guide dog, the losses would have been stupendous.

The final week: four stages until Madrid

Last year Juan Jose Cobo won (!) the Vuelta by just 13 seconds over Chris Froome. 12 months on and we're set for a similarly tight finish, with just 28 second separating the two men who could win this race. In 2011, Froome cut the deficit from 22 seconds to 13 on stage 17 with victory atop Pena Carbarga — but a lack of opportunity afterwards meant the gap stayed on a lucky 13 for the Spaniard.

This year, the race route means things could be very different. While the final processional stage into Madrid stays the same, half of the remaining four stages end on summit finishes — including the showdown finale to Bola del Mundo on stage 20.

Two years ago, overall winner Vincenzo Nibali overturned a one-second deficit on the Bola de Mundo to open up an insurmountable 41-second lead over Ezequiel Mosquera on GC going into the final stage. Contador can take heart in this precedent: despite failing to drop Rodriguez so far, all it may take is one successful attack on stage 20 to turn things round.

Rodriguez, however, is no Mosquera (at least, we all hope). The Katusha captain has ridden the Vuelta with flawless tactics, absorbing all the pressure Contador has heaped on him before delivering psychological blow after psychological blow on his rival. He has now beaten Contador to three stage wins and amassed a healthy stash of time bonuses.

It would be cruel if Rodriguez was made to pay for that one slip way back in stage three to Eibar, where he stopped pedalling to allow Alejandro Valverde to pass and take the win and four extra bonus seconds. A horrible twist of fate it would be should Contador win this race by four seconds or less — although given the drama we've experienced so far, you wouldn't bet against it.

Before the Bola del Mundo showdown we have the Cat.2 summit finish at Fuente De, John Degenkolb's likely fifth win at Valladolid and the breakaway-friendly rolling ride to La Lastrilla. Degenkolb will be the overwhelming favourite to win in Madrid on Sunday, but the owners of each jersey by then is anyone's guess.

Simon Clarke's lead in the KOM standings is under threat by Thomas de Gendt; Rodriguez leads the points standings but Degenkolb will have his chances to return to the fold; Contador only wears the white combined by default but will have his eyes on the main prize: a red jersey which Rodriguez has heroically defended but is far from assured of taking all the way to Madrid. We're in for quite a treat.

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