Vuelta a España: A Closer Look at the Final Week

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By Zach Bigalke

Other obligations in life have prevented me from keeping as close a watch in this year’s Vuelta a España as I have been able to in years past.

The difficulty — especially for a guy who recently reacquired a cable hookup into the television so that it is useful for more than merely DVD reruns of The Simpsons – always seems to be in hunting down grainy video in Spanish or Russian or Italian and watching on the computer. The convenience of flicking on the television and then writing simultaneously makes the prospect of surfing through streaming video sites to find Vuelta coverage a lot less appealing than it has been before.

But after a day of watching football, the U.S. Open had yet to start and I was up early shaking off the lethargy of a season-opening loss by the Oregon Ducks with cups of coffee and no need to watch highlights of the previous day’s events. I flicked on the laptop, and there was the legendary Angliru climb. I had picked a hell of a day to sit down and watch my first stage of the 2011 Vuelta.

Stage 15 would culminate a long three days in the mountains for the warriors of the Vuelta...

Fourteen stages had already come and gone. Bradley Wiggins, the man currently donning the red jersey of the race leader, was the eighth man to already pull it on for at least one stage during the past fortnight of racing. The riders had just completed two leg-breaking days of climbing and were about to embark upon a third hellish ascent-filled stage. At least there would mercifully come a rest day tomorrow.

Andrew Talansky, Dimitri Champion and Simon Geschke got up the road early, forming the breakaway that would scare nobody on a day featuring ramps as steep as 23% along the route. The trio would build a six-minute maximum lead, watching the field whittle away at it until they approached the Alto de Cordal 30km from the finish.

There everybody would be caught, and the race would truly begin in earnest. Wiggins had Chris Froome — from whom he had inherited the leader’s jersey on Stage 11 — riding shotgun up the climbs, hoping to retain his jersey and perhaps even put more time between himself and his chief rivals to the crown. Riders faded fast and often on the Cordal, with gradients as steep as 10% softening up the legs as an appetizer course ahead of the huge summit of the day.

By the time the riders had all hit the slopes of the Angliru, a clear pecking order had emerged. Wiggins and Froome were there, as was young Dutch rider Wout Poels of the Vacansoleil team. Igor Anton, who last year crashed out of the Vuelta on Stage 14 while wearing the leader’s jersey, was also in the select group of a half-dozen riders, hoping to make amends and set himself up for another shot at a grand-tour victory.

It was the steepest sections that put Cobo's competitors "in the red" and allowed the veteran to pounce to victory and the race lead...

And then there was the duo of Denis Menchov and Juan Jose Cobo. The team’s leader in the general classification hunt was certainly Menchov, the Russian that had won this race twice already in 2005 and 2007 as well as the 2009 Giro d’Italia. He entered the stage just outside the top ten, down 2:56 on Wiggins’ leading pace. With Cobo, a strong veteran climber alongside him to assist in punishing the field, Menchov could easily slip into the red jersey this evening atop Angliru.

But that was before the steepest section of the climb kicked in. As the ramp pushed over ten percent and beyond in pitch, it was Cobo who punched down on the pedals and left everyone else gasping in vain to hold some semblance of position on his wheel. Anton was the last rider off the front, part of an earlier move that had faltered. He was quickly on his wheel and then past last year’s star-crossed contender.

Cobo would open up a massive gap as Froome scrambled to help Wiggins manage the deficit as well as possible. The two Sky riders were left to spin in squares, their legs unable to match the accelerations of the rider up the road. Wiggins was struggling, pulling at quicksand, sinking further and further out of the lead with each wincing effort.

Juan Jose Cobo has always been a strong climber in the mountains, but what few forget is that he got his start as an under-23 national time-trial champion of Spain. It was that discipline that showed as he resolutely fought for the finish line. With five kilometers to go, Cobo’s gap on Wiggins and the others was just 13 seconds. Five minutes later and a kilometer closer to the finish, the gap had doubled. Nobody was catching Cobo today, merely trying to keep him from gaining so much time that catching him after the rest day would be nigh on impossible.

On the 23% pitches, the Spaniard kept up his charge, gaining another 15 seconds on his competitors as red-jerseyed Wiggins finally cracked at this section of the climb. Froome would eventually have to ditch his teammate to hold fast on the wheels of Poels and Menchov, leaving Wiggins to fade further back down the mountain. The Sky leader would sink behind his teammate from first to third in the standings by the time it was all over.

The pavement passed under the riders’ tires as the legend of the climb grew, no longer a dirt path scouted out in 1999 but now a pivotal part of the last grand tour of the season. Few climbs are as demanding, as unrelenting. Cobo stopped the clock at the top at 4:01:56, a little over four hours of exertion paying off in the form of his first-ever Vuelta stage victory. All that was left now was to wait at the top and see if he would ascend the podium again to receive the red jersey.

When Froome crossed 48 seconds later, without Wiggins in tow, Cobo knew he had taken the lead in the race with just six stages left to go. A tight race just got even tighter heading into the rest day. If you had no other reason to follow this race, content to settle for just 23 days in July, the emergence of a third month of suspense ought to change a cycling fan’s mind. It may be a little harder to find the coverage, but these kinds of battles make it worth the search. Cobo’s salvo sets up a final week of racing in Spain could yield any of a half-dozen winners next Sunday…

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