Veteran stage 16 winner Frank Schleck argued that his win on the toughest summit finish of the Vuelta a Espana came down to character and courage after he broke away some three kilometres from the finish line at La Ermita de Alba for a lone victory.
In what is proving to be a very successful Vuelta for Trek Factory Racing, Schleck claimed his team's third stage win of the race on Monday, and his first in a Grand Tour since Schleck captured a stage Le Grand Bornand in the 2009 Tour de France, making this his biggest win in six years.
Part of a day long breakaway that gained up to a 22 minute advantage at one point, Schleck said he had "no idea that I would win, but that kind of gap was definitely in our favour. I thought I had a really good chance."
Schleck then set the pace on the Alto de la Cobertoria, the second last climb, to whittle the break down to himself and Colombian Rodolfo Torres before testing his much younger rival with two or three gentler digs on the lower slopes of the final climb. Then with a sudden stomp of the pedals, some three kilometres from the line, the older of the Schleck brothers left Torres in his wake and forged away to his first ever Vuelta stage win, at the age of 35.
"I came here to fight for the general classification but I had two or three crashes early on," Schleck said, "and that changed my tactics. Yesterday [stage 15] the team told me to slow down a bit so I could have some more energy today, and that worked well.
"I couldn't do the Tour because of health problems and I had a lot of crashes in the first part of the season. But after five weeks of altitude training, I was in good shape.
"It was a very hard stage, a long one, so we breakaways were the brave ones to try and go for that stage win. Finally winning today came down to courage and character."
Schleck will not be taking part in the World Championships for Luxembourg, despite his good form, saying the course is not suited to him. Instead he will concentrate on the Italian end-of-season Classics, bringing down the curtain on 2015 at Il Lombardia. But whatever happens there, taking the Vuelta's ninth and last summit finish stage on such an arduous course means at least one big triumph is in the bag in 2015.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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