Vuelta a España: Grand Tour battle heats up as Madrid nears

Time trial, penultimate stage to decide winner

As it reached its first rest day the Vuelta a España had nine teams share as many stage victories, but that was turned on its head just 24 hours later as Imanol Erviti gave Caisse d’Epargne its second stage win, in back-to-back fashion no less.

It was an indication of the changes that the Spanish Grand Tour would see in its second week, with the general classification race still a three-man show, but with one different protagonist and increasing time gaps.

Spain’s Joaquin Rodriguez (Team Katusha) has made an unexpected move into the race’s leadership, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo) still amongst the contenders in second place. The fortunes of hitherto Euskaltel-Euskadi front man Igor Anton have taken a turn for the worse however, with the former race leader leaving the Vuelta with a broken elbow as Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) replaced him in the three-way tussle for leadership.

Rodriguez, Nibali and Mosquera are separated by just 53 seconds with five stages remaining, yet it’s a long way from the two seconds that had split the former pairing and Anton just one week ago. At 2:16 minutes, his rivals climbing well and a flat time trial ahead, it’s unlikely Luxembourger Frank Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) will live up to his promise as a potential winner of the event this time around.

After a well earned rest day the Vuelta resumed last Tuesday with Caisse d’Epargne becoming the first squad to win more than one stage in this year’s edition. Erviti’s solo stage 10 victory 37 seconds ahead of a group of seven chasers continued the team’s success leading into the rest day, when David Lopez claimed stage nine in similar fashion. The day saw a slight reshuffle of the general classification contenders as Rodriguez moved into a two-second lead over Anton while Nibali was just a further two seconds behind.

As the route headed toward Andorra on stage 11 Anton dealt his rivals a firm body blow. The Spaniard launched a well-timed attack to claim a solo stage victory, damaging the hopes of Nibali and Rodriguez. The only rider close to holding Anton’s wheel was Mosquera, who edged up the general classification with his second place, just three seconds behind Anton.

While Nibali limited his losses to just 23 seconds, Rodriguez copped the brunt of the attack. The Katusha rider could only manage 18th place on the mountaintop finish, nearly a full minute behind Anton. A strong ride from Xavier Tondo (Cervélo Test Team) saw him leapfrog Rodriguez on general classification, moving into third behind Nibali, while Anton resumed his overall lead.

The peloton was relieved to return to the flat stuff for stage 12, none more so than HTC-Columbia sprinter Mark Cavendish. The 'Manx Express' hadn’t arrived on time at any of the event’s early sprint stages, but finally on stage 12 Cavendish demonstrated that speed he’s so well known for to hold off Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) for victory.

With the monkey off his back and the green jersey firmly on it, Cavendish demonstrated his winning form once more on stage 13. The British rider beat big Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team) and Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo) as he claimed his seventh Grand Tour victory of the season, including five from the Tour de France.

A sharp turn in the race’s direction took place as the Vuelta reached stage 14. With a tough route from Burgos to Peña Cabarga on the cards, everyone anticipated it would be an important day, yet nobody expected what lay ahead.

With his Vuelta hopes dimming on the previous mountain stage, Rodriguez laid it all down to show he wasn’t settling for a lower podium spot jus yet. He was rewarded for his efforts with a stage victory, but his aggressive approach to the stage paid even bigger dividends due as Anton crashed within seven kilometres of the finish line.

However unfortunate, a broken elbow for Anton and a 20 second margin over Nibali on the stage put Rodriguez’s title hopes back on track. While it was Nibali who assumed race leadership, Rodriguez was just four seconds adrift. Mosquera moved up into third place overall with the same time as Tondo.

In tough conditions on a tough finishing climb, Quick Step's combative Spaniard Carlos Barredo added a home turf stage victory to what has been a strong season for the rider. While Nibali and Rodriguez shadowed one another on the stage, Mosquera moved firmly into third place and closed in on the leaders by finishing 11 seconds ahead of the pair.

On a day with three category one climbs, young Basque rider Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel Euskadi) joined the list of Grand Tour stage winners although sadly much of the attention was on the battle behind Nieve throughout stage 16. Schleck tried to ride himself back into the general classification, putting the pressure on with two attacks on the final climb, and successfully took some time out of the leaders with his second place.

Yet it was Rodriguez and Mosquera that benefited the most on the stage. Rodriguez’s fourth place on the stage, just 16 seconds behind Schleck, landed him back in the race leader’s jersey while Nibali finished 37 seconds behind in 10th place. Likewise, Mosquera gained valuable seconds on Nibali with his sixth place on the stage, putting him just 20 seconds behind the Italian and a possible second place.

A flat 46km time trial in Peñafiel tomorrow will undoubtedly play an important role in the general classification race. It will be joined by the race’s penultimate stage from San Martín de Valdeiglesias to a mountaintop finish at Bola del Mundo in deciding the victor of this year’s race, but there’s still a few opportunities for breakaway hopefuls and the sprinters before the final curtain closes on what continues to be an exciting Vuelta.

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