The Moment The Race Was Won: La Vuelta

Contador Fuente De

I had an angel on one shoulder, saying “don’t do this, they’re going to roll you over” and a devil in the other saying “go for it”. On this occasion, I didn’t listen to the angel. It was attack or die.

Alberto Contador attacked 55km from the finish on Stage 17 and rode on to win the stage and claimed the overall lead. If three weeks of racing are reduced to one moment, it was this audacious attack that won the 2012 Vuelta.

Everyone had expected Contador to crush the race, you could probably bet on the margin of victory before the race begun in Pamplona. But we got the first glimpse on Stage 3 with the Basque climb of Alto de Arrate where we got a quartet of contenders: Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome. The four were to follow each other closely for three weeks before Froome began to fade in the second half of the race but in Arrate Contador looked nervous, attacking but each time being reeled in. Valverde won ahead of Rodriguez.

The next day saw an ugly controversy between Alejandro Valverde and Team Sky. The Spaniard crashed just as the British team was driving the pace in a crosswind on the way to Valdezcaray. Valverde limited his losses to 55 seconds and given his 1.16 margin down on Contador today, the crash probably did influence the outcome of the race and tactics.

Joaquim Rodriguez

Rodriguez soon made a habit of winning and his speed and accelerations on the numerous “summit” finishes, from hills to mountains, paid dividends with the time bonuses he was banking each time. He built up a healthy lead, so much so that by the time the time trial came, he had a cushion and rode well to keep Contador out of the lead by less than one second. It was this this time trial around Pontevedra that saw Froome slip away. Sky like to race methodically but Froome was all over the road on the descent whilst Contador had checked out the course eight times prior to the race and it showed, the Spaniard looked like a downhill skier, slaloming the descent like a Super-G course whilst Froome was hesitant and upright. But Rodriguez kept his lead and then began to build up his margin again.

Froome deserves some credit. He’d been surfing a wave of form since the Dauphiné via the Tour de France and Olympics. He will have learned plenty and fourth overall is notable, especially as he was ahead of other “revenge” seekers trying to salvage the season like Robert Gesink or Jurgen Van den Broeck.

La emboscada de la Hoz
Stage 17 it started fast and an early move went clear with Contador and Valverde but it was quickly brought back although this cost Katusha some firepower. Later a group of 19 was up the road with 60km to go as they raced over the Collado de La Hoz climb and Contador soon attacked and bridged across to the 19 but these riders were fragmenting. Contador got help from Jesus, Jesus Hernandez that is and along with Bruno Pires and Sergio Paulinho, they drove the riders with Contador sitting tight to the final climb when Astana’s Paolo Tiralongo also offered his support, having been a previous team mate of Contador and was gifted Stage 19.

Meanwhile the red jersey Rodriguez was beginning to struggle. He had Alberto Losada for help but not much more and as they climbed the gradual ramp to Fuente Dé they could do little to stop Contador. Rodriguez is like a flyweight boxer, he thrives on short sharp climbs, his darting accelerations are like jabs to the lungs of his rivals as he undercuts his rival’s mitochondria. But on this long road he could not match the rolling power of Contador and surrendered time, and worse for him, Alejandro Valverde used Colombian team mate Quintana to almost bridge across to Contador meaning Rodriguez ended the day in third place.

Contador is Spanish for accountant but this was no calculated move. It could have failed spectacularly. But it worked, a brilliant move by Contador and his team, harrying his rivals when they least expected. In fact there are no photographs or TV images of the move as the stage was so fast and the move so far from the finish that nobody was there to record it. Off the bike it’s hard to get the measure of Contador but on the bike he is a machine, technically gifted and with surely one of the highest pedalling efficiency rates in the bunch and it is nice to see this married to brave mind. Although because we know he can’t win any UCI points since he is returning from a doping ban I wonder if this freed him of the conservatism to camp on a certain podium place?

It’s also worth mentioning John Degenkolb, if he didn’t win the race he won five stages and is only a second year pro. A powerful sprinter with a stocky build, he is actually a more versatile rider and can look to the classics as well as grand tours for more wins.

Joaquim Rodriguez seemed to have everything under control and the steep summit finishes suited him. But team tactics, a bit of luck and a determined Contador turned the race upside down on Stage 17.

In a way it was a shame to see Rodriguez deposed, he’d been attacking non-stop, he was out-climbing his rivals on the wildly steep roads, sprinting for time bonuses and even rode a very correct time trial. He even lost the points jersey to Valverde on the last day. But that’s no enough, the charm of cycling is that bold moves can overturn the race, that one big attack can change everything. Contador went when nobody expected it yet delivered the result everyone expected.

Was this the best grand tour of the year? That’s subjective. The Vuelta had some stages that were worthy of a siesta but many that had you on the rivet of your sofa. The combo of route and the riders made it a close battle for two and a half weeks. Yet in hindsight for all the summit finishes, the early selection of four riders was repeated each day until Froome faded to leave three. Indeed Valverde’s crash on Stage 4 cost him more time than any mountain. And for all the terrible climbs and ten summit finishes it was on the mildest of climbs that Contador powered away from Rodriguez to win the red jersey.

67 thoughts on “The Moment The Race Was Won: La Vuelta”

  1. I enjoyed each day of racing but looking back, yeah all those summit finishes blur to one with the same battles on replay every day.

    Thanks for the previews.

  2. But Rodriquez and Froome weren’t feeling their best because of the always repeating climbs, so even if it wasn’t the heaviest of mountains that made the shift in GC, the cumulative effect of all these mountains was surely felt.

      • It’s just that sometimes people imply that with less steep and high mountains the differences in GC would be bigger, because that is where the gaps are made.

        • The thing is that the steepest slopes should be at 40 or 60km to go (to split the field and eliminate domestiques), and the final climb should be longer and steadier. The TdF got the design right this year (although the mountain stages should have been longer to help achieve the desired), but Team Sky’s über-dominance killed any prospects of (otherwise quite possible) successful long-range raids. Evans (Glandon) and Nibali (Grand Colombier descent) did try what Contador achieved in Fuente Dé, and this is what we should remember (but I guess people will remember more the fact that Evans and Nibali didn’t succeed).

  3. I have to agree with your last paragraph. This Vuelta was probably more exciting than the Tour, but it was very predictable at times with so many steep climbs with same 3 riders putting time into the rest at every summit finish. Even the flat stages became predictable with Degenkolb looking a class above the other sprinters. In my opinion a Grand Tour should cross diverse terrain and reward the best alround rider. So maybe it was fitting that Contador won as he showed that he could do well on the longer less steep climbs, the steep stuff and in the time trial. As for Rodriguez I’m not sure if he can ever win a Grand Tour as this looked like his best chance. The course was stacked in his favour, even the time trial suited him, but one lapse of concentration and a weak team performance on stage 17 has cost him. A week ago I thought he might win all the jerseys and instead he has come away with none.

  4. Said it a couple of days ago & repeating it here Tour de what, that bloke, Wonderboy can keep his 7 tours… He could inly manage 1 vuelta appearance many moons ago. This was what GT’s are all about. And the photo from stage 17 finish I have never seen that grit & determination before well done to all, but out 3 spaniards especially. Best cycling victory photo ever….

  5. Said it a couple of days ago & repeating it here Tour de what, that bloke, Wonderboy can keep his 7 tours… He could only manage 1 vuelta appearance many moons ago. This was what GT’s are all about. And the photo from stage 17 finish I have never seen that grit & determination before well done to all, but our 3 spaniards especially. Best cycling victory photo ever….and isn’t froome a nice bloke away from wiggo.,

  6. I like Purito, and his long seasons. But it would have been a bit of a shame if someone won a GT on time bonuses and uphill sprints. The race was won by the winner (oxymoron intended). Talking about winners, it’s really about time Froome wins something big. He’s made himself very likeable over this Vuelta, but he really needs, and deserves, a GT victory very soon, before he gets used to being a runner-up, if it’s not already too late. “It’s all in your mind”. I’m looking forward to see how Team Sky will plan its 2013 season, especially who goes to each GT.

    • Wait, if Rodriquez had won the Vuelta by virtue of time bonuses and kicking ass on short, sharp climbs, then he’s a worthy winner. Just because he’s not on the Sky(Net) procycling team doesn’t mean he’s not a quality GT winner. Please

      • Let me disagree. Time bonuses and sprints are not what should be required to win a GT, which should be won on the capacity to TT and to distance your rivals in the mountain stages. Thank God Contador’s extraordinary raid prevented the anomaly.

        • I guess it would not have been quite such an anomaly, since Cobo won last year by getting more bonus seconds than Froome – although I do in general agree with your point.
          Having said that I was wanting Purito to win by the 3rd week, for his tenacity alone.

          Many are saying the course made this a good tour, but I think its the fact we had 3 or 4 very closely matched guys going at each other that made it interesting.

          I find the super steep stuff such as Bola del Mundo and the stage Cataldo won to be too over the top – cruelty to Pro cyclists – slow motion racing is not a great spectacle.

    • Whenever Wiggins “animates” a race we can talk about a “worthy winner”. The most boring kind of Tour winner is the TT specialist (e.g. Indurain) who is capable of overcoming mountains, not distancing his enemies in them ( Wiggins ). The big travesty this year were the bonus seconds given for minor not that GC important stages in the Giro and no points given for the mountain stages. That experiment FAILED imho and that’s why Rodriguez lost by 17 seconds.
      P.S. I am both Rodruguez fan as an individual and Team Sky as a team but I can acknoledge that their way of doing things is not the most exciting – gives results though.

  7. Nice recap! Love or hate him, Il Pistolero won by RACING to win rather than trying not to lose, so BRAVO to him. Purito lost due to weak team support more than anything I think. The Stinkoff boyz worked hard for Il Pistolero, helped by old pal Tiralongo (we’ll be back in Siracusa in the winter – I will FINALLY have to locate his fan club there) while Movistar seemed to split the difference for the Green Bullet. Much more interesting than LeTour 2012 but I still think Giro 2012 was a better race overall – but as everyone who reads my comments here knows, I AM horribly biased.

  8. I’m glad for Contador and I’m sad for Purito. Also I think there were no stage victories for Sky and Euskaltel. I wonder how Samu Sanchez would have influenced the race…

    • Yes I think maybe Samu could have done something. I was annoyed when the team pulled him. I know all the niggley injuries didn’t help but ToB is hardly his terrain but I live in hope.

  9. Contador never gave up attacking! Was super overjoyed when he attacked and won on Stage 17! Kudo’s to him and his enduring spirit!
    Also thrilled to see Degenkolb winning! Knew when i first saw him ride at HTC that he had potential to achieve big!
    Vuelta was lot more interesting than TDF, which seemed to be clinically controlled by Sky, as if they rode according to The Scientific Method!
    And of course, the champagne/cava podium girls have more spice than those…women…at the TDF!

  10. Talking about 2012 GT ranking – I do not care which one was the most exiting to watch, the big Q is: which one was the most difficult to win? A: Tour de France. End of story. Giro di Italia must be ranked 2nd and la Vuelta a España 3rd.

    • Get your guide dog glasses or a TV, coz u r talking bollocks. Does anyone think TDF was “difficult to win”? There was no competition! never mind more difficult than either the Giro or the Vuelta???

    • Which GT was the most difficult to win: 1st Vuelta; 2nd Tour; 3rd Giro. Beyond any doubt. The best Wiggins would have never beaten Purito at this Vuelta; and this Contador would have seriously contested the 2012 TdF.

      • Horses for courses, Bundle. This edition of the Vuelta was “made” for Purito (and Contador to a slightly lesser extent); the TdF was a “once in a decade” parcours for a rider of Wiggins’ talents.

        For what it’s worth I just don’t think Contador would have got close in this TdF – he is not time trialling at the same level as he was a few years ago (for whatever reason … ahem…) and, despite all the excitement of his attacks, as Inner Rong has pointed out on numerous occasions, he usualy doesn’t make those attacks count for much time-wise. Look at Stage 17 here: it would have been ideal for the Sky-train / powermeter climbers – Contador wouldn’t have had a chance to make that stick.

        Don’t get me wrong, on a more normal TdF, I just cannot see Wiggins living with Contador for 3 weeks in the high mountains. Froome at 100% (not completely knackered as he was here) is a better bet for Sky depending on the parcours. I’m looking forward to see how Henao develops too – that young guy looks the goods.

        • Totally agree – think the TDF is looking like a very interesting scrap between Saxo and Sky for domination on the climbs. AC still has enough acceleration to gap Wiggins, but Froome ? maybe not quite….

          • Bertie has the acceleration to get the gap, but can’t (on the evidence of this Vuelta anyway) hold the gap.
            Purito and Valverde could always close him (Froome as well early on)
            Purito beat AC on 9 of the 10 uphill finishes!

  11. The Vuelta was entertaining because we had three closely matched riders on different teams battling for the GC, and no team was nearly as dominant as Sky was in the Tour. Therefore, it came down to tactics, and Contador took an audacious gamble and won.

    No matter what the course designers do, they can’t arrange for closely matched GC riders.

  12. As far as what was the best one to watch, in my opinion it was the Giro. Watching Hesjedal fight against the odds and everyone in the mountains to set himself up for the last TT was awesome to me. another thing that I enjoyed was the fact that the points jersey battle was fought for between a sprinter and a climber… good show all around.

  13. I’ve never really warmed to Contador but you’ve got to give him credit. He’s an exciting rider, and the complete antithesis of Wiggins, who won the Tour by grinding away each day with no attacks. However, Contador lit the race up by launching attacks whenever he could, in the most unpredictable manner. As someone said, a Grand Tour hasn’t been won in this manner since the days of Hinault. I still don’t like him but he’s a hell of a cyclist.

  14. One more note on Froome that shows how fast British expectations have changed: before last year’s Vuelta 4th would have equalled the 2 best ever Grand Tour performances by British riders.

  15. Here in Australia, our Grand Tour coverage usually starts around 10:30 – 11pm late at night, with the stages finishing up as late as 2:30am in the morning!! A lot of planning is needed to make sure you have enough strong driks to keep you going through the midnight hours.

    I know I fell asleep a number of times during Le Tour, with stage after stage of the Sky Armada burning the rest of the peloton off their tails. But I never fell asleep during the Vuelta – every mountain stage gave us something exciting, with attacks coming from multiple riders.

    So from a late night couch perspective, the Vuelta was clearly the superior GT!! 🙂

  16. Dunno what anyone else thinks – the sight of Contador struggling on several climbs will lessen the forum talk of him still being on the juice as boy he did look panicky and knackered as Valverde/Quintana chased him down – like the legs were just going from under him. I felt for the lad then.

    Also Froome – he’s a battler but hard to argue he’s riding on anything other than fresh air and determination after this … even rested though he would have struggled to take on JRod on the short sharp bursts I think. Would have been fun to see a Sky team trying to chase down AC and Tiralongo and Froome and Contador side by side on a final climb. We’ll have to wait for TDF for that.

    Whats interesting is how much Richie Porte is talked up (even by Froome as a possible winner ?) but he doesn’t seem like a GT stage winner to me – more a solid mountain lead out man. As soon as he started to continually look back on the Mundo, I felt uh-oh , Menchov will win this.

  17. It was terrible to see Purito lose the race leader jersey, twice in one year now. I was rooting for him all the way but Contador proved to be stronger and smarter. No doubt that Bertie is a great rider but he will never get the same respect as Purito. I hope that next year we will see new kids like Talansky and Froome slugging it out rather than riders with tainted past. If Cadel makes a comeback, then next season is going to be very exciting.

  18. Whilst clearly the overall is the most important element of a GT there is also the winner each day and in that respect the Vuelta was rather predictable. There was a dominant sprinter and the same leading contenders on summit finishes. Without a team to close down each day for a sprint and with Sky happy to let breaks go I thought there were more different daily stories at the TdF with the likes of Voekler and Sanchez getting days out as well as sprinters and overall contenders. I like a story each day as well as the unfolding overall.

  19. Verdict on Vuelta: Exciting racing albeit limited to an elite trio come Madrid. Much better racing than Le Tour and I can’t remember much about the Giro battle which probably speaks for itself or perhaps my failing faculties….

    Fantastic racing from Contador and it clearly meant a lot to him but I can’t enjoy him winning as much I as I could have pre 2010. Valverde rode a good race and I’m not convinced the crash was decisive. Let’s not forget it was BMC that pulled hard just as it looked like Valverde and Movistar were going to get back on before the climb. Gutted for Jrod – really wanted him to win in lieu of a Froome with the form and freshness he enjoyed at the Tour.

  20. @INRNG Do you have the possibility to show the percentage of the blog viewers by country like in a youtube clip. It would be interesting to see after raising the profile in cycling in the UK this year. Most of comments seem to concentrate on Wiggins/Froome/TeamSky even if the first is not the centre of the current recap piece. I imagine the Anglo-Saxon numbers(%) should have risen after the Tour win and the Olympics.
    But then again you can see this as a privacy issue and the idea would not appeal to you in which case I understand.

  21. Good for Valverde getting himself the points jersey. We talk about the GC contenders as “all-rounders,” but that has come to mean climbers who can time trial (Contador et al) or time trialists who can climb (Wiggins et al). But sprinting is part of bike racing too, and I think it’s cool that Valverde showed a little initiative and made what Liggett would no doubt call “a cheeky move,” mixing it up with the sprinters. Congrats, Alejandro!

  22. Puritto’s loss reminded me, wierdly, of Cav’s loss in the olympics. You can use your team as much as you like but at some point you’ve got to do the work yourself. He should have been glued to Contador’s wheel and covered the attack himself if his team was weakened…but maybe he couldn’ which case he didn’t deserve to win.

  23. I feel heartbroken for Purito.

    A toast to AC for his attack. Where was Katusha when he needed his mates? Not saying with his team he could have closed the gap, but he could have cut his deficit significantly. Just proves that cycling is a team sport !

    Vuelta, Giro, then a distant 3rd for Le Tour this year. Hell, the Tour of Utah was more exciting the Le Tour, in spite of a tired post Oly peloton and jet lagged Euros.

  24. I love the analogy of Purito as flyweight boxer, it’s perfect!
    That’d make Contador a crafty middleweight and Froome/Wiggins lumbering heavyweights taking numerous blows to tire out opponents before throwing a big hook (ITT) to finish ’em off.

    As an admirer of pugilism, I’ve often thought there are similarities to cycling, particularly in the willingness to sustain enormous amounts of pain and suffering for a victory.

  25. Froome does deserve credit, but he has to be disappointed with fourth considering his podium finish at last year’s event. Also, you think Gesink was trying to salvage his season? I would say his season was already fairly successful because he won the queen stage and the overall at the Amgen Tour of California.

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