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Stage 20 of the Vuelta a España, 142.2 kilometres from Avilés to the Alto de l’Angliru.
After over 3,000 kilometres just three seconds separate the top two overall at the 2013 Vuelta a España and it looks set to come down to a tense shoot-out on the slopes of the mighty Angliru between Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Alejandro Valverde (3rd at 1:06) and Joaquim Rodriguez (4th at 1:57) may yet hold out the faintest of hopes of springing an upset, but if the evidence of the past week is any sort of guide, the margins should again be tight among the top contenders.
This morning, the overall picture was as follows:
1 Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack Leopard 77:56:05
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:00:03
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:06
4 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha 0:01:57
5 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:03:49
6 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale 0:06:00
7 Leopold Konig (Cze) Team NetApp-Endura 0:06:38
8 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ 0:07:02
9 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:07:45
10 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha 0:11:05
Today's stage features four categorised climbs, but the category 3 Alto de la Cabruñana, the category 2 Alto Tenebredo and the category 1 Alto del Cordal seem little more than warm-up acts ahead of the main attraction, the fearsome Angliru. With an average gradient of 10.2% and slopes of up to 23.5%, the 12-kilometre ascent kick-started the cycling's current fascination with extreme summit finishes when it was introduced in 1999. A novelty back then, the Angliru has spawned many imitations, but its finale remains the most daunting of all. Don't take my word for it - Alasdair Fotheringham was one of the first jounrnalists to go and see the new climb when he followed Fernando Escartin up there in the winter of 1998, and you can read his Angliru preview here.
As we pick up the action after 30 kilometres of racing, a break of some 32 riders has a lead of 1:35 over the main peloton.
The riders in the break are: Jose Joao Mendes (NetApp-Enudra), David Arroyo (Movistar), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Vasil Kiryienka (Sky), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Jacob Fuglsang (Astana), Juan Jose Oroz (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Serge Pauwels (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Jan Barta (NetApp-Enudra), Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM), Rafael Valls Ferri (Vacansoleil-DCM), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural), Maciej Paterski (Cannondale), Carlos Alberto Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Dominik Nerz (BMC), Francis De Greef (Lotto Belisol), Juan Manuel Garate (Belkin), Jerome Coppel (Cofidis), Kenny Elissonde (FDJ), Johannes Frohlinger (Argos-Shimano), Ivan Santaromita (BMC), Dmitry Kozontchuk (Katusha), Angel Vicioso (Katusha), Benat Intxausti (Movistar), Dario Cataldo (Sky), Paolo Tiralongo (Astana), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Andre Cardoso (Caja Rural) and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida).
The break's lead has now stretched out to 3:38, and it's interesting to note the presence of Fuglsang and Tiralongo from Astana in this move, as well as delegations from Katusha and Movistar. By contrast, Chris Horner's RadioShack-Leopard team does not have anyone in the break and the onus will fall upon them to control affairs behind.
Astana's decision to commit climbers of the calibre of Fuglsang and Tiralongo forward at this early stage suggests that Nibali might be tempted to make a move before the Angliru, although he downplayed that possibility last night, insisting that an attack on the descent of the Cordal was unlikely, particularly on dry roads.
The 32 escapees are now tackling the lower slopes of the Alto de la Cabruñana, and their advantage has stretched out to 4:24 over the main peloton.
The 41-year-old Chris Horner’s performances at this Vuelta a España have raised more than a few eyebrows, all the more so given the injury problems that severely limited his diet of racing in the first half of this season.
The inevitable power calculations were rolled out by Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday, even if their estimates have been questioned by many and after taking possession of the red jersey yesterday, Horner went on the offensive, labelling the media coverage of the remarkable Indian Summer of his career as “irresponsible.”
“It’s amazing some of the things I’ve read in the press,” Horner said. "The press has been irresponsible even to print that this is the best form of my life. It's not my best form, this is just one moment when my best form has arrived at a fantastic moment."
Speaking of saying irresponsible things, Horner's past statements have certainly not helped his case. For instance, this is what he had to say on the Lance Armstrong case as recently as last December:
"I understand and I'm clear on how much information is out there on what Lance is said to have done but I'm also clear on the fact that he's passed all of his tests,” Horner told Cyclingnews. “Are you supposed to go back and erase those memories? I remember the 2005 Tour de France and Lance was the best guy there and he past all the tests and won the Tour. I'm not going to debate if he won, he was there, he won and passed the tests."
Out on the road, Nicolas Edet has led Andre Cardoso and Antonio Piedra over the summit of the Cabruñana, and the 32 escapees have a lead of 4:32 over the peloton.
Victory on the Naranco yesterday has given Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) hope that he can climb onto the podium - or perhaps even into the red jersey - on the Angliru today. "If cycling was just ‘two plus two equals four’ then Horner would win and we might as well all go home now,” Rodriguezsaid
. “But it’s not. Tomorrow’s the Angliru, and anything can happen. The time differences will be much bigger and I’m going to do something there.”
The 32 leaders have stretched their advantage out to 5:04 and the first cracks are beginning to show in their working alliance. Grivko, Arroyo, Edet, Piedra and Kiryienka have established a small lead over the rest of the group.
Vasil Kiryienka (Sky), David Arroyo (Movistar), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) and Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural) have a lead of 18 seconds over the rest of the break, while the bunch is 5:38 down.
Before the stage, Dario Cataldo (Sky) was pessimistic about the chances of a break succeeding. "I’m afraid this stage is too short for a breakaway to succeed. I believe RadioShack wants to keep the race together and Katusha will ride the same way as yesterday,” he said. It's certainly been brisk so far (41.8kph at the midway point) but the break's lead remains close to six minutes.
Approaching the day's second climb, the category 2 Alto de Tenebredo, the five leaders have 30 seconds in hand on the rest of the break and six minutes over the main peloton.
Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural) struggles to match the tempo laid down by Vasil Kiryienka and is dropped from the front group on the lower slopes of the 3.4km climb, which goes up at a stiff 10.4%.
Kiryienka, Arroyo, Grivko and Edet are tapping out a decent rhythm on this climb and their efforts are considerably more concerted than those of the bloated group behind. Their lead is up to 1:15 over the chasers, with the peloton still more than six minutes back.
Over the top of the Tenebredo, the four leaders have a lead of 1:15 over the remnants of the break, which has been shedding riders on the way up the climb. Horner, Nibali, Valverde, Katusha, Roche et al are all in the main peloton, 6:40 down.
Vincenzo Nibali's much hoped-for rainfall does not look likely to materialise, by the way. The word from the top of the Angliru is that conditions are currently dry and clear. Nibali told Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday that he was hoping for rain because the resultant slippery roads would force Horner to climb in the saddle like everyone else on the steepest slopes of the Angliru.
Speaking of Nibali and the rain, noted amateur weather forecasting enthusiast (I am honestly not making that up) Domenico Pozzovivo reckons that the weather has not been on Nibali's side at this Vuelta. "He’s also not as strong as he was in the Giro where he found the conditions he loves for racing," said Pozzovivo, who harbours ambitions of following in Gilberto Simoni's wheeltracks as the second Italian to triumph atop the Angliru.
"The Angliru is something I only know in TV. I’ve been told that it’s not as hard as Punto Veleno where I won last year at the Giro del Trentino," Pozzovivo said.
In years gone by, of course, low cloud and steady rain has added another dimension to the hellish upper reaches of the Angliru. For a retrospective gallery of the Angliru, dating back to the 1999 victory of the late and greatly missed Jose Maria Jimenez, click here.
Nicolas Edet led Kiryienka and Arroyo over the top of the Tenebredo, by the way, with Nibali's delegate Grivko crossing the summit with them. The four leaders are continuing to collaborate smoothly together on the way down.
The Movistar team of Alejandro Valvere has taken up the chase in the main peloton. To most, this Vuelta seems to have boiled down to a duel between Nibali and Horner, but the former Fuentes client remains in the hunt.
A counter-attack has organised itself from the remnants of the break and they are closing the gap on the four leaders. Euskaltel-Euskadi and RadioShack are leading the main peloton, with Valverde and a platoon of Movistar riders lined up just behind them.
The peloton is 5:35 down on the break as they churn along towards the base of the day's penultimate climb, the Cordal. Red jersey Chris Horner is sitting comfortably towards the front of the bunch on this long, false flat.
The dust has settled at the front of the race. The four leaders have been reeled in by the chasers and we now have 26 riders in the leading group, 5:35 up on the bunch.
Meanwhile, Salvatore Puccio (Sky), who wore pink early on at the Giro d'Italia, has abandoned the Vuelta.
Euskaltel-Euskadi have grabbed a hold of affairs at the front of the peloton as they look to defend their lead in the teams classification. The presence of two Movistar riders in the break has prompted them to take action.
We're just ten kilometres from the foot of the Cordal. Though only 5.3km in length, its average gradient is some 9.6%, but the main contenders will fear the descent more than the climb itself. The descent is twisting, technical, long and poorly-surfaced. Although the rain has stayed off today, the road is still damp wherever there is tree cover on the way down.
The Angliru requires some special considerations when it comes to gearing, and Alasdair Fotheringham has updated us with the lowest gears available to the principal contenders - Valverde 36x29; Nibali 34x29; Sanchez 34x32; Roche 36x32; Horner 34x32; Rodriguez 36x28.
Our 26 leaders till have 5:40 in hand on the main peloton as they enter the final 30 kilometres. Nibali still has a trio of Astana teammates up there in the shape of Fuglsang, Tiralongo and Grivko, and that could be an important strategic factor. Back in 2000, Roberto Heras sent a trio of Kelme teammates up the road early on and then jumped across to them one by one on the way up the Angliru.
That said, tactical finesse counts for precious little when the gradient stiffens to 23.5%, and the sense is that this will ultimately turn into a slugging match between Horner and Nibali.
Katusha are now adding their weight to the pace-making in the peloton. They'll want to keep Joaquim Rodriguez at least in contention for a shot at stage victory when the race reaches the Angliru.
The leaders hit the foot of the Cordal, and immediately Vasil Kiryienka hits the front and sets the pace. King of the mountains Nicolas Edet is quick to follow, as he looks to seal his title before reaching the Angliru.
Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) accelerates clear at the front of the race, but Kiryienka is setting a steady tempo just behind him.
Tiralongo has opened up a decent gap on his errstwhile breakaway companions at the head of the race. Meanwhile, the bunch has hit the foot of the Cordal and Horner is riding comfortably in second place there.
Indeed, Horner has just drifted off the front of the main peloton, almost by accident. He didn't even seem to realise that Nibali, Valverde et al were no longer on his wheel, but slows down as soon as he realises.
The pace and the gradient are beginning to take its toll on the main peloton, which is strung out in one long line, but the overall contenders are all present and correct near the front as Katusha set the tempo.
Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) has put in a huge effort and clawed his way back up to Paolo Tiralongo at the front of the race. The duo have 5:28 in hand on the bunch and a decent gap over the remnants of the break, too.
Horner is sitting in fourth wheel in the main peloton, on the wheel of teammate Robert Kiserlovski. The pace is brisk in the red jersey group, but thus far, all of the main contenders appear to be untroubled.
Dark clouds are looming over the Cordal but as yet, there has been no rain. If some drops begin to fall, we can doubtless expect Nibali to move up from his current position of 10th in line in the diminishing red jersey group.
Elissonde and Tiralongo are putting in a fine effort up front and they've done well to maintain a lead of 5:23 over the bunch as they grind up the 12% slopes near the top of the Cordal.
There are still around 25 riders in the red jersey group, which is still being led by Katusha. Nibali has Tanel Kangert for company in the centre of the group.
Tiralongo leads Elissonde over the top of the Cordal and they begin the technical swoop down towards the base of the Angliru. Dark clouds are looming overhead, but the rain should hold off for the descent at least.
Horner appears very comfortable near the front of the red jersey group as the gradient stiffens, while Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) is betraying signs of suffering.
After Katusha's Caruso swings over, RadioShack's pairing of Kiserlovski and Haimar Zubeldia take up the pace-making in support of Horner.
Up front, meanwhile, Tiralongo and Elissonde are hurtling down the descent of the Cordal, which is narrow, sinuous and might cause some problems in the red jersey group.
Wisely, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) attacks over the top of the Cordal. As a nervous descender, the Frenchman is well aware that he needs a head start on a downhill as technical as this one. The red jersey group reaches the summit of the Cordal a shade over five minutes down on Tiralongo and Elissonde.
Vincenzo Nibali leads the red jersey group on the way down the Cordal, but the intention seems to be to stay out of trouble rather than to put Horner in difficulty.
Samuel Sanchez takes over at the front next, and opens a small gap as he glides through the succession of bends.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Tiralongo and Elissonde have begun the final haul up the Angliru with a lead of 4:56 on the red jersey group.
Elissonde and Tiralongo are still riding through and off on the gentler lower slopes of the Angliru. The first five and a half kilometres are the easiest, before the gradient starts to kick up in earnest at Viapará.
The descent of the Cordal has wreaked havoc in the red jersey group. There are fewer than ten riders around Horner as they begin the ascent. Nibali and Kangert are up there, as well as Rodriguez, Sanchez, Valverde and Roche.
The red jersey group swells again as the climb begins in earnest. Valverde has a clutch of Movistar teammates setting the tempo in a group that is now around 20 riders strong.
Elissonde and Tiralongo continue to tap out a steady tempo up front, with a lead of 4:27 over the Horner group.
Dani Moreno has now taken up the reins in the red jersey group and is stringing things out in support of Joaquim Rodriguez, who sits in second wheel. Kiserlovski is behind them, followed by Horner, Kangert, Nibali and Valverde.
Rodriguez will have to go from distance if he wants to win the stage and haul his way onto the podium, hence Moreno's stiff pace-setting, which is whittling down the red jersey group.
Kiserlovski is dangling at the back of the red jersey group, but Horner remains comfortable just behind Rodriguez and Moreno. They are still four minutes down on the two leaders.
Tiralongo and Elissonde are through the 9km to go mark with 3:50 in hand on the big hitters. Their closest chasers, we understand, are 40 seconds down.
Moreno's fierce pace-making is chipping chunks off the two leaders' advantage and he is also performing something of a cull in the red jersey group, which is down to 15 riders.
Kangert has been shed from the red jersey group, which still includes Nibali, Horner, Valverde, Rodriguez, Pozzovivo, Pinot and Roche, amongst others.
Tiralongo and Elissonde's lead is down to 3:10 and they are yet to reach the first severe ramps of this climb. Moreno's efforts behind have been hugely impressive.
Elissonde and Tiralongo are still collaborating but the steeper pitches of the Angliru's upper reaches might stifle their working alliance.
8km to go for the red jersey group, which has been reduced to just ten riders as dark clouds gather overhead. They are just 2:50 down on Tiralongo and Elissonde.
Tiralongo and Elissonde have reached a ramp of 17% and the veteran Sicilian is trying to shake off his young French companion.
Moreno leads the red jersey group onto the first steep section of the Angliru. The contenders brace themsleves for the first serious move.
Nibali accelerates and opens a small gap over the red jersey group. He is picking his way through the remnants of the early break, and so far there has been no response from the red jersey group.
This is a brave move from Nibali, who has almost seven kilometres of climbing ahead of him. He has a gap of 9 seconds over the Horner group, while Nicolas Roche has been distanced.
Horner leads the chase of Nibali, dragging Valverde and Rodriguez with him. Nibali is ten seconds ahead of this trio.
Kenny Elissonde has forced his way clear of Tiralongo at the head of the race. Will he wait to try and pace his fellow Sicilian Nibali?
A seated Nibali grinds his way up a 21% slope, maintaining his ten second gap over Horner, Valverde and Rodriguez.
Horner is slowly edging his way back up to Nibali, while Rodiguez and Valverde hang onto his wheel.
Valverde has been dropped by Horner and Rodriguez, who are grinding their way slowly back up to Nibali. The Sicilian has seven seconds in hand on Horner with over 5 kilometres still to come.
It's a game of inches on the upper slopes of the Angliru and Horner is clawing his way back up to Nibali. He and Rodriguez are almost within touching distance of the Astana man.
Elissonde grinds his way through the 5km to go banner, but he knows that Horner, Nibali et al are gaining ground behind.
Horner and Rodriguez catch back up to Nibali. They have 16 seconds in hand on Valverde.
It's all about the Nibali-Horner duel now. Horner puts in a searing acceleration but Nibali quickly responds with a dig of his own. It's level on points so far.
Horner, Nibali and Rodriguez have caught up to Tiralongo and they are 1:53 down on Elissonde.
Time slows down on the Angliru. Horner, Tiralongo, Nibali and Rodriguez take a breather of sorts and watch one another, while Elissonde maitains his two minute lead.
The Horner group has now caught up to Jakob Fuglsang. There are now three Astana riders in this group with Horner and Rodriguez. It's Nibali's move...
Elissonde has two minutes on the red jersey group and is looking as comfortable as an early escapee can look on a gradient of 14%....
Tiralongo grinds on the front of the red jersey group as they enter the final four kilkometres. Valverde has fought his way back up to them, while Horner appears utterly untroubled by the tempo. Astana have all the cards but do they have the wherewithal to play them?
Elissonde is summoning up his last reserves of energy to deal with the 21% slopes near the summit.
Nibali launches his second telling attack, but he can't open a gap on Horner. Rodriguez and Valverde are also able to follow, albeit at a distance of five metres.
We don't know how many riders from the earlier break are between Elissonde and Nibali, but they are still picking some off. Nibali and Horner don't know if there will be bonus seconds on offer by the time they reach the summit.
Nibali puts in another fierce dig on a 17% slope with 3 kilometres to go. Horner is slower to repond each time, but latches back on. Can Nibali break him?
Nibali rips away again inside the final 3 kilometres as low cloud swirls around him. He opens a small gap but yet again Horner battles his way back on.
The mist is growing every thicker near the summit. Nibali opens another gap with his fourth stiff acceleration, but again Horner has managed to respond. They aree 18 seconds up on Valverde and Rodriguez.
Huge crowds are spilling across the road, and Horner and Nibali barely have space to land a blow up here.
Horner has managed to edge his way ahead of Nibali as the gradient rises to 22%. Will he try and drop the Sicilian here?
Elissonde, meanwhile, is shrouded in fog but inside the final two kilometres and riding his way to a famous stage victory. Nibal and Horner surely won't catch him now.
Visibility is severly reduced near the summit as the TV cameras lose track of Nibali and Horner. Valverde has dropped Rodriguez in the battle for 3rd place, but the battle royale is between Horner and Nibali.
Horner leads Nibali through the 2km to go banner and into another realm. They can barely see five yards in front of them at this point, and all Nibali can do is focus on Horner's rear wheel in front of him.
Chris Horner looks to be riding to Vuelta a Espana victory. On the steepest section of the Angliru, Horner manages to edge his way clear of Nibali. Nibali sits heavily into the saddle and the gap begins to open.
Horner's lead over Nibali is out to 17 seconds as he dances up a 21% gradient and moves past the last survivors of the chasing group.
Into the final kilometre from Elissonde, who has surely done enough to win the stage, although Chris Horner is closing fast.
Horner cruises through the red kite one minute down on Elissonde but 20 seconds up on Nibali. The 41-year-old is about to seal the most improbable of Vuelta victories.
Elissonde is on the final downhill section to the line. He can sense the finish but can't see it because of the thick, thick fog.
Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) wins on the Angliru. Chris Horner takes second place 26 seconds down and he has sealed the Vuelta a Espana.
Nibali was caught by Valverde and Rodriguez in the finale. They cross the line 54 seconds down, with Valverde taking the sprint for third.
It's hard to believe what we've just seen. Chris Horner has dropped Vincenzo Nibali on the Angliru to win the Vuelta a Espana at the age of 41.
Horner lies on the tarmac after crossing the line, and is then helped towards a tent near the podium area by a soigneur and press officer Philippe Maertens. Nibali will finish second overall, while Alejandro Valverde will claim the third step on the podium.
Nicolas Roche will hold on to 5th place overall, ahead of Domenico Pozzovivo, while Thibaut Pinot will ride into Madrid in 7th overall.
“I didn’t have very, very good legs when I got in the break and it was very difficult. The Angliru is a mythical climb and this is unbelievable to win. I was just here to work for Thibaut Pinot,” says the stage winner Kenny Elissonde. “We have a very young team and there is a very good atmosphere in the team. We tried to do something like this and it’s a dream come true.”
1 Kenny Elissonde (Fra) FDJ 3:55:36
2 Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack Leopard 0:00:26
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:54
4 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:00:54
5 Andre Fernando S. Martins Cardoso (Por) Caja Rural 0:00:54
6 Dominik Nerz (Ger) BMC Racing Team 0:01:15
7 José Joao Pimenta Costa Mendes (Por) Team NetApp-Endura 0:01:45
8 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha 0:01:52
9 Serge Pauwels (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:01:59
10 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ
General classification after stage 20:
1 Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack Leopard 81:52:01
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:00:37
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:38
4 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha 0:03:22
5 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:07:11
6 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale 0:08:00
7 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ 0:08:41
8 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:09:51
9 Leopold Konig (Cze) Team NetApp-Endura 0:10:11
10 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha 0:13:11
Thanks for following our live coverage on Cyclingnews today. We'll be back with more from Sunday's final stage to Madrid but in the meantime you will be able to read a full report here, and we'll have all the reaction to Chris Horner's surprise Vuelta win.