Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali stretched his advantage over Spain’s Ezequiel Mosquera in the Vuelta a Espana on Friday as the threat of overall victory being snatched away looms closer.
The 19th stage was won by Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, the Omega Pharma team rider edging American Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Transitions and third-placed Italian Filippo Pozzato of Katusha in an uphill sprint finish to the 231.2km race from Piedrahita to Toledo, the longest stage in the event.
Nibali, of Liquigas, finished in sixth place, just a second behind the winner and increased his lead over Mosquera, of Xacobeo, to 50 seconds.
Mosquera finished 23rd, 13 seconds behind Gilbert.
Slovakia’s Peter Velits is third, 1 minute, 59 seconds behind Nibali.
The title decider will come in the mountainous penultimate stage, a 168.8km ride which ends on the summit of the Bola del Mundo in the Guadarrama mountain range northwest of Madrid.
Throughout the race, Mosquera has put his climbing skills on display, a fact that appears to have left Nibali worried about the 20th stage.
The Italian claims the climb to the Bola del Mundo does not worry him — but the fact he battled to leave Mosquera further in his wake speaks volumes.
“I followed Gilbert, I knew that he was fastest, the man to beat and that I wouldn’t lose time,” Nibali said. “I don’t know the Bola del Mundo climb, but I’m not worried, I have already climbed very difficult summits in Italy.”
Mosquera said he was disappointed by his performance, but despite slipping further behind Nibali, he is determined to grab the leader’s jersey.
“Frank Schleck almost fell in the bend and we were cut off from the main pack, while Nibali found a spot behind Gilbert,” Mosquera said. “It was a really stressful finish. I will have to do it all tomorrow [Saturday]. The first Spanish winner of the Tour de France, Federico Bahamontes, once said: ‘You have to attack when you’re at the bottom of the climb.’ That’s the key.”
Gilbert, who won the third stage, said he was delighted with a performance that shows he is in form ahead of his bid for the world road race champion’s rainbow jersey in a little over two weeks’ time.
“I’m happy, I know that I’ll reach the top of my form at the world championships. It was good preparation,” Gilbert said.
Following the race, world and Olympic time-trial champion Fabian Cancellara was strongly criticized by his team’s sports director for abandoning the Vuelta earlier than agreed on Friday.
Cancellara pulled out after 120km of the 19th stage, while his team said he had been expected to stay on to help teammate Frank Schleck at the finish.
“We’re extremely disappointed by Fabian’s abandon; it’s not the way a great champion should behave,” Saxo Bank sports director Bradley McGee said. “He decided to stop for some unknown reason, hurried off to the airport to catch the next flight and now he’s not answering his phone. When he decided to pull the pin on the race, I expressed a very strong opinion about that and I was adamant he should continue, but I can’t push him back on to his bike.”
McGee said the team had agreed with the Swiss rider that he would quit after stage 19, not during it.
“Today, there was a very technical, tricky finish and we agreed he would stay to help Frank to be well-placed in the last kilometers because it was so complicated and then he could go. We’re all feeling slightly jaded, but we’ll battle on.”