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As we pick up the action at the midway point of the stage, Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) are a massive 13:30 clear of the peloton as they begin the day's second climb, the category 1 Puerto de San Lorenzo, 10 km at an average gradient of 8.5%.
There was a hyperactive speed on the approach the day's opening climb, the short 3rd category hop up the Alto de la Cabruñana after 45 kilometres, but with Sky controlling affairs in the main peloton, nobody was able to get clear. Cataldo and De Gendt smartly clipped off the front on the descent, however, and they've been steadily building their lead ever since.
Today's is the queen stage of the Vuelta a Espana, with no fewer than four categorised climbs on the agenda. The aforementioned Alto de la Cabruñana - incidentally, David Moncoutie (Cofidis) led the bunch over the top - and the Puerto de San Lorenzo are followed by the category 1 Alto de la Cobertoria (8km at 8.6%) and the fearsome special category summit finish at Cuitu Negru.
The road book describes Cuitu Negru as being 19.4km in length with a gradient of 6.9%, but those statistic do little justice to the extreme difficulty of this ascent. Most of the climb has featured before in the Vuelta, as the same road is used to approach the summit finish at Pajares, but the additional 2.8km that feature at the end here are tough enough for Alasdair Fotheringham - not a man given to hyperbole - to dub it as "the climb to end all climbs."
The newly-paved section pitches up to 23% in some points, while the final 500 metres average a dizzying 17%. Such a gradient would appear to suggest that it's advantage Joaquim Rodriguez, but the stage's 4,500 metres of total climbing suit an endurance rider and may tip the balance at least partly back into the court of Alberto Contador.
Contador attacked repeatedly yesterday at Lagos de Covadonga, but he couldn't break Rodriguez, who retains his 22-second lead as the Vuelta enters its final week.
1 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 58:17:21
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 0:00:22
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:41
4 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:02:16
5 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:04:51
6 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:05:42
7 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin - Sharp 0:06:48
8 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:07:17
9 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:07:21
10 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:07:39
Out on the road, De Gendt and Cataldo have stretched their advantage out to 15 minutes as Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank take up the pace-making duties in the main peloton.
De Gendt and Cataldo are both over an hour down on general classification, so they may well be given enough rope here to fight out the stage win between them. A lot will depend on how aggressive Saxo Bank's tempo is behind. Thus far, Rodriguez has been all but impregnable to attacks on the final climb and Contador may well look to avail of the terrain on offer before Cuitu Negru to try and make the difference.
Interesting to note that Euskaltel-Euskadi have allied with Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank in setting the pace at the head of the main peloton on the Puerto de San Lorenzo. Igor Anton is their best-placed rider overall, but he is all of 7:39 down in 10th place overall.
The injection of pace from Contador's men has seen the break's lead drop slightly. Cataldo and De Gendt now have 14:28 in hand on the main peloton.
Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge) withdrew ahead of today's stage, citing fatigue, and the speed so far is continuing to take its toll on the peloton. Pablo Lechuga (Andalucia) has also abandoned, after the race covered the first two hours over rolling roads at an average speed of some 44.7kph.
The peloton is settling into a steady tempo now, and another 30 seconds has been shorn from De Gendt and Cataldo's lead. 14:00 the gap.
Cataldo and De Gendt are safely over the top of the Puerto de San Lorenzo and tackling the descent, while Matteo Tosatto leads the Saxo Bank train on the climb, 13 minutes further back the road.
Saxo Bank's tempo is steady rather than searing at this point, and it doesn't look as though any immediate damage will be done on the San Lorenzo.
David Moncoutie (Cofidis) attacks in search of the mountains points for 3rd place in the company of Orica-GreenEdge duo Simon Clarke and Peter Weening.
Clarke takes the sprint for 3rd ahead of Weening, to consolidate his lead in the mountains classification.
Moncoutie and Clarke have been swallowed up by the peloton on the long descent of the San Lorenzo. The gap to the break is 13:10.
Joaquim Rodriguez and Katusha have had a special aid to their recovery over the past couple of days. Rather than risk getting stuck in traffic jams, the Russian squad has travelled to their team hotel by helicopter after the stages. While such measures are not permitted in the Tour de France, UCI commissaires said that teams are free to travel as they wish at the Vuelta. “It’s not forbidden by UCI rules”, chief commissaire Didier Simon explained. “Only the specific regulations of the Tour de France state that transport by them organized is compulsory. It’s no problem that a team favours the recovery of the riders.”
De Gendt and Cataldo are continuing to collaborate smoothly as they head towards the base of the descent.
Eritrean champion Daniel Teklehaymanot was a heavy faller in yesterday's stage, but the Orica-GreenEdge man remains in the Vuelta in spite of his injuries. "His shoulder is injured but there’s no fracture. It’s going to be hard for him to finish today’s stage,” said team doctor Serge Niamke at the start this morning.
Alessandro Ballan moves up in the main peloton on the long descent of the San Lorenzo. The BMC man came to the Vuelta primarily to stake a claim for a place in the Italian team at the world championships, but it has emerged over the weekend that Italy will not select any riders who have been named in ongoing doping investigations. Ballan, who has been one of the marquee names repeateldy impliciated in the Mantova investigation, will thus join the likes of Enrico Gasparotto, Damiano Cunego, Giovanni Visconti and Filippo Pozzato on the sidelines.
De Gendt and Cataldo are now on the approach to the foot of the day's penultimate climb, the 1st category Alto de la Cobertoria (8km at 8.6%).
Euskaltel-Euskadi have rejoined Saxo Bank at the head of the peloton on the approach to the Cobertoria. 12:40 the gap to the two leaders.
The pace is beginning to pick up in the main peloton as Euskaltel-Euskadi's Mikel Astarloza hits the front as the climb begins.
De Gendt and Cataldo are on the climb proper now, while Euskaltel-Euskadi are continuing to drill the pace 11 minutes further back the road, with a line of Saxo Bank riders tucked in behind them. The peloton is strung out in a line, and we can expect a real selection to take place once the climbing begins in earnest.
Overall leader Joaquim Rodriguez is some way back in the main peloton, but he looks very comfortable as he begins to move up gradually through the field.
The pace has ratcheted up significantly in the main peloton under the combined impetus of Saxo Bank and Euskaltel. The break's lead is now down to 9:22. Incidentally, Simon Clarke and Peter Weening had managed to stay away on the descent of the last climb, but the Orica-GreenEdge duo has been unceremoniously engulfed by the bunch.
Like Rodriguez, green jersey Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is happy to sit some way back from the front of the peloton for now, but the Spaniard seems comfortable. Valverde moved up to 3rd this weekend due to Chris Froome's (Sky) struggles and he is bidding to finish on the podium of a grand tour for the first time since he was suspended for his implication in the blood doping investigation Operacion Puerto.
Another man returned from suspension is trying to seize the initiative on today's stage. The bobbing figure of Alberto Contador is fifth in line at the head of the peloton, as Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank set the tempo.
Contador briefly veers out of the paceline to the left hand side of the road and casts a look back over his shoulder to assess the damage being done behind. The main contenders are all still there but the group has been reduced to 60 riders or so, and there must surely be some very tired legs in there.
Now Contador drops back down along the long line of riders. Shades of his manager Bjarne Riis on Hautacam in the 1996 Tour de France?
Riis, of course, faces renewed scrutiny over his relationship with Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Two of his former CSC charges, Ivan Basso and Frank Schleck, both admitted to paying the doctor at the centre of Operacion Puerto for his services, and in his new book, "The Secret Race", Tyler Hamilton says that Riis introduced him to Fuentes in 2002. Riis continues to insist thathe never met Fuentes
Intriguing scenes as Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez sit in the last three positions in the main group. The tension is mounting on the penultimate climb.
Up front, De Gendt and Cataldo have crossed the summit of the Cobertoria, and they start the descent with a lead of 7:50 over the red jersey group.
Contador is now locked on Rodriguez's rear wheel, with Valverde just in front of them.
Bizarre scenes here as Rodriguez, Contador and Valverde now find themselves at the rear of a group that has been distanced slightly from the front of the main peloton.
Up ahead of them, Chris Froome looked like he was beginning to suffer, as he allowed a gap to open ahead of him while spinning his lowest gear.
A trio of Saxo Bank riders led the main peloton over the summit of the climb, perhaps unaware that the top 3 overall have been caught flat-footed and been slightly distanced. The gaps in the bunch are small, however, and it should all come back together on the descent.
Sergio Paulinho, Jesus Hernandez and Rafal Majka were the trio who led the main peloton over the top, but it looks as though they have relented on the descent and there are around 50 riders in the red jersey group. Up ahead, De Gendt and Cataldo have a lead of 7 minutes.
Saxo Bank remain massed on the front of the peloton and presumably Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez are all in there somewhere.
It's all a little disorganised in the main peloton now as a number of riders are trying to slip away. Linus Gerdemann, Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Nissan), Andrey Zeits (Astana), Kevid De Weert (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) have joined Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) and Maxime Bouet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) off the front, 15 seconds or so in front of the peloton.
This six-man group has a lead of 45 seconds over the main peloton, but Euskaltel-Euskadi are back setting the pace in earnest, with Romain Sicard tapping out the tempo on the approach to the final climb.
That disorganisation on the descent means that De Gendt and Cataldo have stretched their lead back out slightly. The duo went through the final sprint at Campomanes with a lead of 8:14 over the peloton.
The peloton is strung out in one long line on the approach to the day's final climb, the 1st category Cuitu Negru. Contador's Saxo Bank team are first in line, followed by Chris Froome and a handful of Sky teammates, then Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Valverde and Movistar, and Rodriguez and Katusha.
Cataldo and De Gendt are on the lower slopes of Cuitu Negru, with a lead of 7:37 over the red jersey group.
Speaking of the red jersey, his Katusha directeur sportif Valerio Piva has told TVE in race he is not concerned by Rodriguez's positioning in the main peloton. "Everything is under control and he told me he was fine," Piva said. "He has the situation under control. I think whoever leads after today will win the Vuelta."
Sicard buries himself at the head of the peloton as it hits the base of the day's final climb. The familiar bobbing figure of Alberto Contador is in 7th position and looking very comfortable.
The Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank train takes over at the front. Matteo Tosatto leads on the relatively benign opening slopes of 6%.
Rodriguez is tucked in behind Andrew Talansky further back the line, but the Catalan stilll appears pretty comfortable.
The Saxo Bank pace is starting to inflict real damage on the red jersey group. The elastic is being snapped at the rear of the group and it has been reduced to just 25 riders or so.
Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) looks to be on the rivet near the back of this group as his future Saxo Bank teammates continue with their pace-setting. The two leaders De Gendt and Cataldo, meanwhile, are 6:40 clear.
Chris Froome looks like he is struggling with this tempo but the Sky man is still part of this reduced red jersey group. Alejandro Valverde looks a little more comfortable. Accompanied by Nairo Quinatana, he sits behind the string of Saxo Bank riders.
15km to go for the red jersey group. Matteo Tosatto swings over and Sergio Paulinho takes up the reins for Alberto Contador at the front.
Nairo Quintana unleashes a short, sharp acceleration but Paulinho smoothly closes the gap.
Chris Froome still appears to be struggling as a gap opens and then closes in front of him.
Froome has recovered and moves up in a group that is now down to around 15 riders or so. Joaquim Rodriguez is beginning to show himself, and he sits in 5th place, at the back of the Saxo Bank train.
Up ahead, the road flattens out for De Gendt and Cataldo, who have 6:10 in hand on the red jersey group.
Interesting to note that Dani Moreno is no longer in the red jersey group, and Rodriguez appears to be isolated. Andrew Talansky and Rabobank's Robert Gesink and Laurens ten Dam are still in there, while Igor Anton is dangling off the back.
Both Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) and Nicolas Roche have also been dropped from this red jersey group, and there is still a lot of climbing to come.
Roche is ploughing a lone furrow some 17 seconds behind the red jersey group, which is down to just 16 riders.
Contador sits in 4th wheel, just ahead of Rodriguez and Valverde. The next few kilometres could define this Vuelta.
Dani Moreno, Denis Menchov (Katusha) are now in a group with Nicolas Roche and Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan), 12 seconds down on the red jersey group.
Cataldo and De Gendt have shown admirable unity on the climb so far, and they reach the 9km to go point with 5:40 in hand.
The gradient is steady rather than biting at this point, but the slopes will begin to stiffen in three kilometres or so. After a brief respite, the road then kicks up to its steepest gradients in the final 2.8km .
Menchov, Moreno, Roche and Monfort have managed to latch back on to the rear of the red jersey group but they may begin to struggle again once the gradient rises.
Agonising for Roche. The Irishman put in a monumental effort to get back on, but he cracked as soon as the junction was made, and he has been definitively jettisoned by the red jersey group with 9km of climbing to come.
1500 metres further up the road, De Gendt and Cataldo are still together as the gradient rears up to 9%.
Contador rocks gently from side to side as he climbs out of the saddle, while Rodriguez is locked on his wheel and steadily seated.
De Gendt and Cataldo have reached a section of 16%, but are cheered by the first crowds that they have encountered on this final climb. The sun is shining, but unlike during the sweltering opening days in the Basque Country, the temperatures are rather more pleasant here.
Cataldo and De Gendt continue to battle together on Cuitu Negur, and they are a kilometre ahead of the red jersey group at this point.
Rafal Majka pulls over for Saxo Bank after a huge turn, and when Jesus Hernandez takes over, he pulls a select group clear with him - Contador, Rodriguez, Valverde and Quintana are all there, but Froome, Gesink and Ten Dam have all been dropped.
Attack from Contador, but he has only succeeded in shedding his teammate. Rodriguez, Valverde and Quintana are lined up behind him.
Contador follows up with a second dig with 6.5km to go, and Valverde and Quintana are distanced.
Contador has persisted with a long, steady effort in a bid to burn Rodriguez off his wheel. Quintanta is doing his utmost to drag Valverde back up to the top two overall.
Cataldo and De Gendt are still together as they approach the final, steepest section of the climb.
Meanwhile, Quintana has brought Valverde back up to Contador and Rodriguez, and once the pace slackens, Valverde cheekily attacks himself and gains a handful of metres.
Contador is now seated, but is keen to take up the pace once again, and he brings Rodriguez and Quintana back up to him.
4km to go for the four-man red jersey group, which is now spread across the road. They look set for a slow-motion shoot-out on the agonisingly difficult final 2.8km.
At the front, Cataldo leads De Gendt on a veriginous 23% slope, but the two leaders still cannot be separated.
Cataldo tries to grind away from De Gendt inside the final two kilometres, but he can't quite manage to inch away.
Contador bobs out of the saddle as the four members of the red jersey group approach the final 2.8km kick up towards the finish. Chris Froome is 45 seconds behind and losing time.
1500 metres to go for Cataldo, who has edged his way clear of De Gendt. But the Belgian is still in sight and that will worry Cataldo.
Quintana attacks from the red jersey group just before the steepest section.
Contador accelerates as the gradient rises to 21% and he brings Rodriguez and Valverde back up to him. If Contador wants to win the Vuelta, he knows he has to shed Rodriguez here.
The gradient is now 23%. Contador grits his teeth and kicks again under the 2km to go banner. He has dropped Valverde and Quintana, but Rodriguez will not be moved. The red jersey is locked to Contador's rear wheel.
Up front, Dario Cataldo is riding to stage victory.
Inside the final kilometre for Dario Cataldo, who grinds his way up another 23% slope. His suffering is almost at an end.
Contador and Rodriguez slowed slightly and Valverde was riding his way back on. But as soon as Contador accelerates again, Valverde is quickly distanced.
Contador kicks again as the road rises to 23% but he simply cannot push Rodriguez beyond his limits.
Cataldo grimly grinds towards the summit with 12 seconds in hand on De Gendt.
Joaquim Rodriguez takes over the pace-setting from Contador, but the red jersey is happy to tap out a sensible rhythm on these vicious slopes.
200 metres to go for Cataldo, who is crawling towards the finish line, almost in slow motion, but De Gendt is burying himself behind in a bid to get back on terms...
100 metres for Dario Cataldo, who is almost struggling to stay upright at this pace.
Dario Cataldo gets the stage win, 6 seconds ahead of Thomas De Gendt. Both men suffered horribly in the final two kilometres.
Behind, Valverde has made it back up to Contador and Rodriguez as they approach the gruelling final 500 metres.
Contador accelerates with 400 metres to go as the gradient kicks up to 23%. Valverde is distanced, but Rodriguez is able to come around him and the red jersey is now setting the tempo.
Contador tries to come around Rodriguez inside the final 150 metres, but the wily Rodriguez is looking to narrow the road.
Rodriguez kicks away inside the final 50 metres and sticks another two seconds on Contador to come home in 3rd. He will also claim a four-second time bonus to extend his overall lead to around 28 seconds.
Valverde comes home in 4th, some 15 seconds later, just ahead of his teammate Quintana.
Valverde comes home in 4th, some 15 seconds later, just ahead of his teammate Quintana. Igor Anton is the best of the rest, over a minute down on Contador and Rodriguez.
The remnants of the general classification riders are coming across the line in ones and twos. A leaden-legged Chris Froome rolls across the line over 5 minutes down on Cataldo, and loses more than two minutes on the day to Rodriguez and Contador.
1 Dario Cataldo (Ita) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
2 Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Vacanonsoleil-DCM) 0:00:07
3 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:02:39
4 Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank 0:02:41
5 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:02:58
6 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:03:24
7 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:04:07
8 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin-Sharp 0:04:15
9 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank 0:04:18
10 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 0:04:21
Chris Froome came across the line 5:11 down on the stage, but he will retain his 4th place on general classification ahead of Dani Moreno. His hopes of finishing on the podium, let alone taking overall victory, have been dealt a possibly irreperable blow, however.
1 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 63:38:24
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 0:00:28
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:02:04
4 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:04:52
5 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:06:58
6 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:07:28
7 Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin - Sharp 0:08:28
8 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:09:00
9 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 0:09:11
10 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:11:44
Thanks for joining us for today's live coverage. You can find a full report, results and pictures here. We'll be back with more live Vuelta coverage on Wednesday, but stay tuned to Cyclingnews in the meantime for all of the news from Tuesday's rest day.