Contador reigns in Vuelta's most feared day

Alberto Contador took the stage win, the gold jersey and stardom today in the Vuelta a España with...

GC challenger Sastre loses time

Alberto Contador took the stage win, the gold jersey and stardom today in the Vuelta a España with the stage win on top of Spain's most feared climb, the Alto de l'Angliru. The 25 year-old Spaniard of Team Astana dropped his competitors and rode solo for the final 3500 metres of the stage to finish ahead of Caisse d'Epargne's Alejandro Valverde and Joaquím Rodríguez.

Contador's teammate, Levi Leipheimer, finished in fourth and general classification favourite Carlos Sastre finished in fifth at 1:32. With his gains, Contador took the race overall from Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and leads by 1:07 over Leipheimer and 3:01 over Sastre.

"I was targeting this climb. It's the most mythical climb in Spain," said Contador following his victory. "It was a spectacle with all the fans... and I think Levi did great as well."

Contador made his move and put the icing on the Astana cake after sensing Valverde was weakening. The winner of the Giro d'Italia slowly added more time on Valverde, who had lost 3:22 in Thursday's stage to Suances. Rodríguez waited for his captain and the duo managed to limit Valverde's loss to just 42 seconds over the final 2500 metres of climbing and following 1000 metres to the line.

"After the mistake I in the Suances stage, I am very happy with the way I reacted today," said Valverde in a press statement. "This one was one of the most difficult stages and for me it was one of my best days. The Angliru is a climb that suits me pretty well because you have to go with power, and at certain times I thought that the stage win was possible." His aim remains a podium spot in Madrid in one week's time.

Contador handled himself with grace and wrote himself firmly into the ranks of top Spanish climbers over the stiff gradients of the Angliru. Through the corridors of fans he managed the pitches of 21 percent to arrive at Angliru's summit with 50 seconds and an assured stage victory. He fired his hands like pistols similar to when he conquered the Giro in May.

Sastre looked completely different than he did on France's Alpe d'Huez. The 33 year-old managed himself but suffered. First the Contador-Valverde express gapped him and then Leipheimer marked and distanced him in the final two kilometres.

"The sensations were not bad. I tried to remain in the group ahead, but the explosiveness of Alberto, Alejandro, Joaquím and these types of riders puts me in difficulties in certain moments," explained Sastre. "I kept my rhythm and tried to limit the time losses so that I did not lose my options in this Vuelta a España."

Sastre occupies fourth overall, just over one minute over fifth-placed Ezequiel Mosquera of Team Xacobeo-Galicia. Mosquera road well in a day that favoured him with cool and cloudy conditions. The favourites gapped him, but he rode consistently with Oliver Zaugg (Gerolsteiner) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) afterwards. "I could not follow Contador, it was very tough. I was just trying to ride my own rhythm until the top," he said to Cyclingnews.

Kern leads way to Angliru

After a day of rest, the riders lined up for one of the most feared days of the Vuelta, if not the 2008 cycling calendar – a 209.5-kilometre journey in Asturias to the finish on the Alto de l'Angliru. Ahead was one category three climb, three category one climbs and then the 12.6-kilometre run up the hors catégorie Angliru - an average gradient of over 10 percent and maximums at 23 percent

Riders left San Vicente de la Basque under cloudy skies and 17º temperatures. Attacks were made by many - including Belgian Philippe Gilbert of Team Française des Jeux and German Stefan Schumacher of Team Gerolsteiner - but none made it clear until kilometre 37, when Christophe Kern of Team Crédit Agricole broke loose.

The Frenchman gained three minutes by kilometre 40. The third category Alto de Ortigueiro was ahead of Kern with two riders - Slovakian Matej Jurco (Team Milram) and Dutchman Maarten Tjallingii (Silence-Lotto) - behind. He covered the pass at kilometre 47 with 3:40 on the chase duo and nearly double on the Euskaltel-led peloton.

Kern realised that there would be safety in numbers for such a demanding stage. After the descent, he waited for Jurco and Tjallingii. The three had 10 minutes in hand by kilometre 85. Team Astana showed its intentions for the stage and overall race by coming to the fore to aid Euskaltel's efforts. The gap was at 10:30 for the start of the Puerto de Arnicio - the biggest gap the trio would reach for the day.

At the summit of Puerto de Arnicio, kilometre 116, the gap was down by two minutes. The three persisted to the next category one climb. Over the top of the Alto de la Colladona the gap was just over five minutes. The gap for the start of the final of the three category one climbs, Alto del Corda, was 4'47". The trio did not look like it would make it to the base of the Alto de l'Angliru ahead of the Astana charge.

Kern sensed danger and ditched the duo on the way up the Alto del Corda. He held 27 seconds to his ex-companions and 2:05 to the favourites group at the top of the climb, but he looked weakened by the efforts. He made it to the final 10 kilometres solo, where the favourites caught Jurco and Tjallingii, and the start of the Angliru. Kern's day ended when he was caught at kilometre 200 - after 163 kilometres off the front of the race.

Astana strength

Germany's Andreas Klöden did major work on the Corda and its descent to keep teammate Contador safe. The 33 year-old, second in the 2004 Tour de France, pulled off at 10 kilometres remaining of the Alto de l'Angliru. He turned the work over to José Luis Rubiera with the gap to Kern at one minute. Contador sat second wheel, one ahead of teammate Leipheimer. 'Chechu' Rubiera hammered over the easier portions of the climb, before the walls of 21 percent.

Leipheimer came to the front for the tricky gradients. He led Contador and Caisse's Astana through kilometres 6.5 to 7.5 of the Angliru. His work thinned it down to Valverde and his trusted teammate, Rodríguez. Tour de France champion Sastre was out the back with his chances of wining the Vuelta up in smoke with more than six kilometres remaining.

After Leipheimer pulled off at six kilometres, Valverde and Contador set out to take advantage of Sastre's loss. Spanish Champion Valverde moved to the front for a spell, even if looked the weaker of the rivals.

Contador put the final polish on the Astana show of strength, while Leipheimer was marking Sastre some 30 seconds down the road. The winner of the 2006 Tour and 2007 Giro fired a deadly attack with 3500 metres remaining, some of which touched 21 percent gradient.

Euskaltel's double blow

Euskaltel not only lost the race overall, but it lost its team captain. Previous race leader Egoi Martínez and teammates did their part to ride Igor Antón into the overall lead, but back luck put paid to the 25 year-old's Vuelta.

Antón, eighth in the 2007 Vuelta a España, crashed about eighth kilometres from the finish, on the same descent that put Abraham Olano out of the race a few years back. The Basque rider was forced to abandon and the team focused its efforts on Martínez.

Martínez finished the day 7:05 back and now is 6:56 behind Contador in the race overall.

Frenchman David Moncoutié, winner of stage eight, rode smart and added points to his red mountains jersey. He managed to take fourth on the mountains behind the escapees and finish 11th on the Angliru climb. "This was almost like a mountain bike race. It's okay to do this once in a while," he said. "Contador was no surprise; he came here to win the Vuelta."

Stage 14 - September 14: Oviedo - E. E. Fuentes de Invierno, 158.4km

Stage 14 from Oviedo to Fuentes de Invierno is only be 150 kilometres long, but it may prove to be even tougher than the Angliru. The profile is extremely saw-blade like. Many of the little, steep rises, are not even categorised. But the stage does start with a categorised hill. The Alto del Padrún comes after only nine kilometres.

After many of the small rises the category two Alto de San Emiliano comes at kilometre 70.5. The category three Alto de la Camporada and the Alto de La Falla de Los Lobos (another climb meaning rift of the wolfs....) prepare the riders for the category one Alto de la Coladona.

The final climb is used for the first time. Fourteen kilometres will bring the riders up to 1,496 metres atop the category one Fuentes de Invierno. Fuentes of the winter? Will the name serve as a reminder of dark and cold times of any doping scandals?

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