The Vuelta's three key mountain stages in Andalucía have left Alejandro Valverde looking an ever more likely winner of his first major tour title and the Xacobeo-Galicia team raging at what they see as unjust treatment of leader Ezequiel Mosquera by the race's commissaires.
The upset stems from Saturday's Sierra Nevada stage won by David Moncoutié, with Mosquera second, 24 seconds ahead of Valverde. Later that evening, Mosquera was handed a 20-second penalty by the commissaires for accepting a bottle of water outside the designated feed zones. The eagle-eyed judges had seen Mosquera take a bottle of water from someone wearing a Xacobeo team jersey 6.5km before the summit finish.
The commissaires insisted that this was a case of illegal assistance by a team helper. However, Xacobeo team boss Alvaro Pino is vehemently denying that the person who had handed Mosquera the bottle has anything to do with the team beyond being a passionate fan of the Galician squad.
"What Ezequiel did is what everyone does. I am going to take that however far it needs to go, even if I have to win the Vuelta in court," Pino said.
"The second place Mosquera took on the stage and the gaps he achieved on his rivals were 90% thanks to the bidon he took in prohibited fashion," president of the race's technical jury, Italian Celeste Granziera, told El Diario Vasco.
Granziera upset Pino with his comment. "Have you ever raced on a bike in any category at all?" he said. Getting a negative response, Pino replied, "That explains everything, because then you would know that what you're saying is not right."
"If we miss out the podium or a place in the overall standings because of those 20 seconds, we will take whatever action we can because this is an injustice," Pino added.
Pino denied the man in the Xacobeo jersey who handed the bottle was a team member. "I've got four soigneurs and four mechanics and if you want I will put them in front of you together with the TV coverage of the stage so that you can see that this person is nothing to do with the team."
Mosquera, meanwhile, was more composed in his reaction to the news, but clearly unhappy. "If those 20 seconds mean that I lose a place on the podium, then we will see..." Galicia's Mosquera said.
He is sixth overall, 44 seconds down on third-placed Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
"They have to rectify this mistake," he added. "There are a lot of Galician fans who have come to Andalucía and we've given some of them jerseys. I gave everything I had on that attack and in the end it didn't serve any purpose."
Pino also questioned the decision made by the commissaires to adjust the time limit on the Sierra Nevada stage so that 55 riders who finished outside the time limit would not be eliminated. "There were three Caisse d'Epargne riders in there who are still going to be able to work for their leader. Isn't that much more decisive than receiving a bottle?" Pino said.
In all, the commissaires handed out 27 penalties against riders and team staff during the Sierra Nevada stage, including one of 10 seconds to Cadel Evans for drafting behind a motorbike after he suffered the puncture that all but ended his overall hopes.