Rivals further distanced by dominant Spaniard
Spaniard Alberto Contador of Team Astana put a golden mark on this Vuelta a España with a counter-attack of Ezequiel Mosquera's strong effort to arrive solo and win stage 14 atop the Puerto de San Isidro. He added further time into his overall classification lead with both Carlos Sastre and Alejandro Valverde dropped in the final four kilometres.
Contador's teammate, Levi Leipheimer, jumped Mosquera to arrive second for the stage and solidify his second overall in the classification, at 1:17 back. Spaniards Sastre and Mosquera sit in third and fourth at 3:34 and 4:35, respectively.
"I was not thinking of the stage victory, I just wanted to get more time on my rivals," said Contador. "At the end of the day, the stage victory is always nice. I am very calm even though there is still a week to go in the race."
The group of favourites that had assembled on the 14-kilometre Puerto de San Isidro exploded under the impetus of Team Xacobeo Galicia's Mosquera. Even though Caisse d'Epargne controlled the stage's finale and Sastre pulled for some time, it was the drive of Mosquera that sent the big names gasping for air.
Mosquera, 32, hit the front with 5.5km remaining and he never looked back until Contador passed him. Valverde had trusted mate Rodríguez with him as the two occupied the slipstream of Mosquera. Contador and Leipheimer – today in the white combination jersey – made up spots four and five on the express. However, one by one, the pace of the Xacobeo Galicia rider dropped off the passengers.
Valverde and Sastre slip away
Valverde went out the back shortly after the four-kilometre banner and Sastre quickly followed suit. Mosquera kept plowing forward, but he must have felt the sigh of relief from Contador, who sat on his wheel with Leipheimer, as the golden jersey's most serious rivals went out the back and further down the classification rankings. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and David Moncoutié (Cofidis) picked up Sastre, but he still lost 20 seconds – Valverde one minute.
"Congratulations to Ezequiel Mosquera, the kid already did well in last year's Vuelta and, today, he did a good ride to assure a good position in the general classification. ... He was intelligent," said Sastre.
Mosquera kept driving in what seemed like an attempt to ride himself onto the Vuelta's overall podium. He did not ask once for help from the Astana duo to assist in driving nails into Sastre and Valverde's coffins. However, Contador felt the weight of the golden jersey, the howls of the Spanish fans and the Sastre trio at 14 seconds back.
The winner of the 2007 Tour de France and 2008 Giro d'Italia jumped clear of Mosquera at just before the 1km to go banner. "My team knows how to control the race. They were radioing me, telling me to go for the win," Contador said. The bonus seconds and threat of a Sastre comeback were also a factor.
"It was clear that we had to go on the attack [to reach the podium]. I was hoping there would be some passion and I would be allowed to win the stage, but that wasn't the case," Mosquera commented.
Leipheimer marked Mosquera until the final metres and then jumped clear for second and an Astana one-two – the same order in which they lead the classification. Astana's tactics upset Mosquera's directeur sportif, Alvaro Pino. "After all the work that Ezequiel did they should have let him win," said Pino.
Valverde looks out of contention for the Vuelta's final podium in one-week's time. He is now six minutes back on the overall and must start to shift his focus to the Worlds, in two weeks, as Vuelta stardom fades.
"It is clear that Contador is the better climber," said Valverde. "He also has prepared the Vuelta 100 percent, and has ridden a very impressive race. I had some bad luck, otherwise I would be higher up in the overall." Valverde thought that his one bad day to Suances notwithstanding, he is doing an OK race. "Yesterday was a good stage, today was a bit better."
One day after the Angliru spectacle, the 63rd Vuelta a España continued with another mountainous romp through the northwest region of Asturias. From Oviedo to the Fuentes de Invierno ski resort to be exact – 158.4 kilometres. The steep pitches of the Alto de l'Angliru were one day behind but the 150 riders faced a tough day: three category climbs followed by three category one climbs, with the final being up El Puerto de San Isidro.
Before the first categorised climb of the day, Padrún, a dangerous move – including Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) – went clear. Team Lampre brought it back before the summit. However, the saw blade stage facilitated an early escape group and shattered peloton. By the peak of the second climb, Santo Tirso, a move of eight men had 25 seconds over the peloton: Jurgen Van Goolen (CSC-Saxo Bank), Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Vasil Kiryienka (Tinkoff Credit Systems), David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Martin Velits (Team Milram) and Ivan Mayoz (Xacobeo Galicia).
A group of three – Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Dmitry Kozontchouk (Rabobank) and David Garcia (Xacobeo Galicia) – joined to make 11 before the third of the three category three climbs, Alto de San Emiliano. Chavanel minded himself with grabbing top points from the others for his teammate, David Moncoutié, who carried the red mountains jersey back in the main group. Over San Emiliano, the 12 had 3:40 and 70 kilometres to race until the series of three category one climbs.
Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne team put muscle into the favourites group to keep the gap – once at a max of 4:28 – reasonable. By the base of Colladona, the gap was 3:42. Over the top the gap was 4:15. The break stood a good chance of making the Alto de la Colladiella intact, but the finale of Puerto de San Isidro would be touch and go.
Chavanel and Van Goolen fire
With the Caisse d'Epargne team whittling the gap down to nearly two minutes, Chavanel charged away from the ten other escapees at kilometre 131 with Van Goolen, Mayoz and Velits. The other seven faded out of the picture.
Chavanel may have made the initial charge, but it was Van Goolen who had the lasting power. The 27 year-old Belgian hunted for his first professional win with a kick at the base of the Puerto de San Isidro. He gained a half-minute on the favourites group with the other three escapees caught. Midway up the climb, Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick Step) and Iban Velasco Murillo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) caught him and signaled the start of the favourites' fireworks.
Stage 15 - September 15: Cudillero - Ponferrada, 202km
Few riders will be sad that this is the final mountain stage of the 2008 Vuelta a España. The race has one of the most difficult starts this year. From the coastal town of Cudillero the road goes up for the first 83 (!) kilometres, until the bunch is on top of the Puerto de Somiedo. The category one levels out at 1,490 metre.
The road then goes down for 60 kilometres, albeit not as steep as on the way up and not all the vertical metres gained on the other side will be lost. The Alto de la Mina (cat 2) starts at 740 metres of altitude. 5.4 kilometres later the riders are at 1,187 metres. From there a lot of downhill is left, with one rise allowing a break to form.
Ponferrada serves as the finish for the first time since 2029, although it has been used as a star town in 1997 and 2006. The finish town will see the riders complete two laps of 10 kilometres. Ponferrada is in the province of Castilla y León. Its location on the Camino de Santiago and the UNESCO World Heritage Las Médulas (ancient Roman gold mines) have had a positive effect on tourism in the region.