Alberto Contador held on to his advantage after making an audacious break to win the 17th stage of the Spanish Vuelta on Wednesday and take the overall lead from Joaquin Rodriguez.
The two-time Tour de France champion drew on his experience by making a gutsy dash more than 50km from the finish and nothing but mountain to climb to the finish atop the Fuente De.
Contador never relented, building his lead to cross the finish 2 minutes, 38 seconds ahead of Rodriguez, who had held the race leader’s red jersey since the fourth stage of 21-leg race.
“I had to gamble,” said an emotional Contador, who knew Wednesday was crucial with only tomorrow’s penultimate leg — and last mountain stage — available to overcome a 28-second deficit to Rodriguez. “My instinct took over and I attacked.”
Contador’s win in 4:29:20 took his leading overall time to 68:07:54 for a sizable 1:52 advantage over Alejandro Valverde.
Valverde, of Spain, nearly caught Contador over the 17km of the final climb to finish six seconds behind in second place alongside Sergio Luis Henao of Colombia.
“I didn’t plan the attack, I was only thinking about doing it about three kilometers from the finish, but he who doesn’t gamble, doesn’t win,” said Contador, the 2008 champion. “I’m not in my best shape, but I was motivated. I don’t conform to finishing runner-up.”
Helped by former Astana teammate Paolo Tiralongo, Contador started his break on the penultimate climb of the stage at Collado de la Hoz. The Spaniard needed more than 20km to open up a near 30-second lead on Rodriguez, but was then cruising as he opened up a minute’s gap within another 10km before grinding out the finish.
“It was crazy to attack so early because we were all so close,” Contador said. “It’s a day that will stick in everyone’s memory.”
The 29-year-old Contador’s memorable victory comes after he was stripped of the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia titles after a small trace of clenbuterol was discovered in his drug sample during his victorious Tour.
“These tears are from emotions because everything that has happened has been so difficult,” said Contador, who embraced his family and was overcome after the victory.
Rodriguez, of Katusha, had managed to respond to Contador’s attacks throughout the 67th edition of the race. However, he did not have the strength needed on Wednesday, despite coming off a rest day.
“It’s sad, because I’ve lost the Vuelta,” said the 33-year-old Rodriguez, who watched the Giro d’Italia slip away on the final day’s time-trial in May. “I got caught sleeping.”
“We had this feeling of: ‘What’s going on today?’ when you saw how SaxoBank was doing. They were really giving it to us. At some moment, I couldn’t help but think: ‘What a disaster that we weren’t on top of it,’” Rodriguez said.
Christopher Froome of Britain was 4:58 off the pace and dropped to 9:40 behind Contador’s overall time. He is in fourth place, ahead of Spain’s Daniel Moreno.
Yesterday’s 204.5km leg from Aguilar de Campoo to Valladolid is the longest of the edition and should favor sprinters.
The three-week race ends in Madrid on Sunday.