La Vuelta. It's the forgotten, youngest child of the two more revered Grand Tours on the cycling calendar, the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia. Lacking the Tour's history and largesse, or the inspired marketing and tempestuous weather that is the Corsa Rosa, the Vuelta sits apart.
Cuitu Negru had shown Rodriguez a class above. If he was to fall, it would have to be spectacularly. Then came Fuente Dé.
Gone are the days of it competing for top billing with the Giro in May. Its August home only perpetuates its status to the uninitiated as an afterthought to the cycling season, and yet it's a disservice to treat it as such. There's an x-factor in Spanish racing that has, and will, make the next three weeks a feast for the eyes. Last year's Vuelta was arguably the race of the year, the late injection of inspiration that saved the latter half of the cycling season. And in 2013, it promises just as much.
"I had an angel on one shoulder, saying, 'Don’t do this, they’re going to roll you over', and a devil in the other saying, 'Go for it'. On this occasion, I didn’t listen to the angel. It was attack or die." - Alberto Contador on Stage 17 of the 2012 Vuelta.
Stage 17, the 2012 Vuelta, 187.3km, Santander - Fuente Dé. The battle between Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde had raged since Stage 4, the day that ended so well for Australian Simon Clarke on Estación de Valdezcaray. And now it was set to come to a head.
On Estación, Valverde had shed time, but in the period since, the Spaniard had raced intelligently and had been slowly improving into the third week. A patient predator that his prey should be wary. Beside him was a relatively unknown but talented Colombian, Nairo Quintana, who had dutifully steered his captain up the standings. Between them, a shot at the red jersey seemed realistic.
Then there was Contador. Weaker than the El Pistolero of old, a shadow of his former self after a six-month suspension from the sport, but a threat all the same. The stinging attacks that had been a pillar of his previous Grand Tour wins were absent, his time trial had been underwhelming, and he had looked ragged on the horror Stage 16 to Cuitu Negru. But the fire still burned within him. On Cuitu Negru, with the rest day looming, Valverde and Contador had both fired off their best, and both had been found wanting. But neither had been broken by the mountain, nor the Vuelta. And in any case, giving up on Contador was dangerous. This was a four-time Grand Tour winner.
Ahead of them, adorned in red, was Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha man had answered their every call, and looked ominously strong throughout. This was the rider who had so painfully lost the Giro d'Italia in the May previous to Ryder Hesjedal after conceding the race lead in the final day's time trial after a stubborn, but admirable, defence, and who was to many a perennial bridesmaid, a Raymond Poulidor of the 21st Century. But here he was, having skipped the Tour, the form rider at La Vuelta, and looking comfortable in the leader's jersey. He had been as untroubled by the assaults on his throne as Sky had looked at the Tour in July.
Into the rest day ahead of Stage 17, there had been fighting words mixed with an air of resignation. A Vuelta win for anyone but Rodriguez was possible, but unlikely. The Katusha man had showed limited weakness. Cuitu Negru had shown the Spaniard a class above. If he was to fall, it would have to be spectacularly.
Then came Fuente Dé.
"The climb is not that hard but it could result in some real damage being done." - Abraham Olano, 1998 Vuelta a España winner previewing the race
"Rodriguez was too strong. We knew we had to do something different. We hatched a plan." - Bradley McGee, then Saxo Bank DS
Fast from the outset, there was sense of a storm brewing from early on Stage 17. Opportunism led Valverde and Contador into an early move that came to nothing, but the warning signs were there. This would be a memorable day, the Vuelta was not over.
It was hot, and the peloton was wilting. Two weeks in the saddle, a few weeks out from the world championships, and little to ride for but pride will do that late in the season. The Collado de La Hoz would've been but a bump on the road for a Paris-Nice peloton, but fatigue ravaged the race and this was September. Sensing the moment was right, Bradley McGee shouted at Contador to go, "Vayamos, Vayamos!"
Contador struck. Like smoke, he was there, and then he was gone. Rodriguez's momentary lapse left Contador to gain a gap, and disappear into the distance. Looking back it must be a haunting memory for the Spaniard, but at least initially he reacted calmly. He'd lost team-mates in the skirmishes earlier in the day but he wasn't totally isolated. He rode within himself to the tempo of the Katusha lieutenants he still had. It wasn't long however until they too were burned through.
Alberto Losada was Rodriguez's last man, but as even he faltered, Rodriguez was forced to go it alone. Valverde and Quintana then worked over the weakening Rodriguez to really put the nails in the coffin, while Contador was calling on every favour he had to get extra support to win La Vuelta. Former team-mate Paolo Tiralongo was one such mercenary. Contador needed 28 seconds. By the finish on Fuente Dé, he'd put two minutes 38 seconds into Rodriguez and scuppered the latter's chances for the second time in six months of winning a Grand Tour.
Contador admitted that physically, "it wasn’t on one of my best days. But my will to succeed was enormous. Second place isn’t bad but you always have to try and win, even though many people thought it was out of reach for me".
And Rodriguez on the cruel receiving end.
"I’m sad because I’ve lost the Vuelta. That’s what we’re here for: sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t but it’s sport. The stage to Fuente Dé will make history and I’m proud to be part of it."
And indeed it will.
It was a gutsy move that could well have left Contador broken. A gamble, but in this instance it was a performance worthy of the Grand Tour win that it spawned. A throwback to another era.
Sandwiched between the epic that was Cuitu Negru and the gruelling finale on Bola del Mundo, Stage 17 was the centrepiece of a fantastic Vuelta a Espana. The climax in a narrative far more compelling than the other two Grand Tours of 2012. Would Contador have been so brash in his charge for victory had he been nursing a high place at the Tour de France or the Giro d'Italia with the stakes seemingly higher? It's debatable. But the lower profile of La Vuelta certainly helps breed this style of racing. No one races La Vuelta for second. Conservatism be damned.
Of course, Contador won't be riding the 2013 Vuelta, but there's still much to be said for this year's edition. Rodriguez now has a score to settle and, at 34, after another solid Grand Tour performance at the Tour, he's still got the legs. Again he'll be the protagonist, the man around whose story the Vuelta will be closely entwined.
Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali can prove himself as Chris Froome's greatest threat and Contador's heir apparent in the future if he's to add a second Grand Tour to his 2013 takings. And then there's Valverde. He's won La Vuelta once before, but while the runner-up in 2012, he may well have one eye on Florence as he takes on the 11-summit finishes on offer for this year's race. Might he prefer to add rainbow stripes to his wardrobe, rather than red, time will tell.
No Quintana this year in Spain, but a handful of other brilliant Colombian climbers, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran topping the list, will no doubt animate the race.
Simon Clarke, the fan-favourite king of the mountains, returns. Adam Hansen is set to take on his seventh, yes seventh, Grand Tour in a row, and might La Vuelta again provide a platform for a resurgence for the out of sorts world champion Philippe Gilbert? Anything's possible.
There's plenty on offer, and a mouth-watering finale on the Angliru on Stage 20. It's hard not to be excited. Spanish racing, insane parcours, and no defending champion in sight. So be sure to join us. Don't be fooled, this is a race no less worthy than any Grand Tour, and it's prone to throw up the unexpected and surprise.
SBS will be broadcasting eight live stage of La Vuelta, starting 31 August. More information here.