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Barredo and Nieve pick up the crumbs as Rodriguez eyes the biggest prize

After the drama of stage 14, when Igor Antón crashed out of the race lead, the Vuelta a España welcomed two new faces to its storied ranks of stage winners. Meanwhile, the battle for the red jersey kicked into high gear, with the race lead changing hands on the slopes of the Alto de Cotobello, which was making its Vuelta debut.

With just five racing days remaining, including the individual time trial and one last monster climb on the penultimate day, the outcome remains very much in doubt, with less than a minute separating the top three, and less than five minutes separating first from tenth.

Stage 15: Solares > Lagos de Covadonga

Quick Step‘s Carlos Barredo, one of the most attacking riders in the professional peloton,  finally added a Grand Tour stage win to a palmarès which already includes a stage of Paris-Nice and the 2009 Clásica de San Sebastián, courtesy of a committed solo attack in difficult wet conditions at Lagos de Covadonga.

Stage 15 winner Carlos Barredo

Featuring a flat route leading to the iconic climb of the Covadonga, this stage was always likely to favour a successful breakaway, particularly with the leaders looking to conserve energy for the following day. Consequently, the day’s six-man break of Barredo, Nico Sijmens, Pierre Cazaux, Olivier Kaisen, Greg Van Avermaet and Martin Velits reached the start of the 12.5 km ascent with a seven-minute advantage over a largely disinterested peloton.

After Martin Velits attempted an early attack on the lower slopes Barredo, the strongest climber in the group, quickly reeled him in and continued on up the road, leaving the rest to fend for themselves in the rain and mist.

In the main pack, Liquigas assumed control from Xacobeo Galicia to protect new red jersey Vincenzo NibaliCarlos Sastre and Ezequiel Mosquera attacked, but were quickly chased down. Mosquera subsequently attacked again and managed to escape, but would eventually gain just 11 seconds as Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez, his closest rival, finished together 2:26 down on Barredo. Peter Velits finished with them to move up to fourth overall. The day’s big loser was Xavier Tondó, who finished 1:40 behind Nibali and dropped to fifth.

Barredo, who comes from nearby Oviedo, was overjoyed to win on ‘home’ territory:

It’s a great joy to win at home. I was born in Gijon and I’ve lived 30 kilometres away from the stage finish here. I got my first road bike as the result of a bet I made with my father, who told me that if I could ride from our house to Lagos de Covadonga and back on my mountain bike, he’d buy me a road bike. Today, so many years later, I’ve won here. That’s why today is the greatest win of my career from a sentimental point of view.

Nibali, who remains in the overall lead by four seconds, was grateful for the hard work put in by his team:

I only looked at saving my leadership. My team did a great job of that. They rode on the front from the start till the bottom of the climb; Oliver Zaugg and Roman Kreuziger did the final part. Roman did the maximum effort at the right time. He’s been brilliant.

Stage 15 result:

1. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) 4:32:09

2. Nico Sijmens (Cofidis) +1:07

3. Martin Velits (HTC-Columbia0 +1:43

4. Greg Van Avermaet (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +2:06

5. Pierre Cazaux (FDJ) +2:10

Stage 16: Gijón > Cotobello

Stage 16 winner Mikel Nieve

Mikel Nieve secured his first win as a pro, riding solo to become the Vuelta’s first ever winner at the summit of the new climb of the Alto de Cotobello. Behind him, some brave attacking riding by Fränk Schleck distressed all the leaders, resulting in Vincenzo Nibali losing the red jersey to Joaquim Rodriguez.

With a pair of first category climbs – the Puerto de San Lorenzo and the Alto de la Cobertoria – to negotiate before the final ascent of the beyond-category Cotobello, the peloton was braced for a tough and nervy day’s racing, with the Liquigas team of race leader Vincenzo Nibali always likely to come under pressure from multiple attacks.

After some early unsuccessful breaks, a decisive ten-man escape featuring Caisse d’Epargne‘s Luis León Sánchez and also Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Juan José Oroz was finally established after the initial third-category climb of Alto de Cabrunana. They built up a lead of around four minutes before starting to fragment on the slopes of the San Lorenzo.

At this point Nieve and teammate Amets Txurruka jumped clear of the peloton in an attempt to make the junction to the lead group, with Oroz dropping back to assist them. The three-man Euskaltel-Euskadi group yo-yoed backwards and forwards in no man’s land between the breakaway and the peloton for several kilometres before their determination finally paid off and they latched on to the leaders.

Saxo Bank moved to the front of the peloton on the lower slopes of the Cobertoria with just under 50 km to go. Fabian Cancellara did a massive turn on the front, thinning the red jersey group down to around 20-25 riders, setting up Schleck to attack near the summit of the climb. With Liquigas unwilling to burn themselves out in the chase, Schleck briefly looked like he might get away, but he eventually dropped back and reintegrated with the group.

Averaging 8.2% over its ten kilometre length, the Cotobello is a steep but relatively steady climb, favouring steady, tempo climbers rather than more explosive ones. The remnants of the breakaway arrived at its foot with an advantage of  2:45 over Nibali’s group, and Nieve quickly set about establishing a consistent pace which no one else could live with.

Behind him, Schleck was quickly back on the attack, cranking up the tempo and immediately putting the likes of Xavier Tondó and Rubén Plaza into the red zone. Garmin-TransitionsTom Danielson was the only rider to go with the Luxemburger, and the pair gradually established a gap of between 10 and 15 seconds, with Roman Kreuziger towing teammate Nibali and a select GC group including Ezequiel Mosquera and Nicolas Roche along at the front.

Joaquim Rodriguez claimed the overall lead by 33 seconds

From the back of this group, Carlos Sastre launched a counter-attack of his own, quickly leaping across the gap to Schleck and Danielson and then surging past them, forcing the pair to give chase. Sastre tried to attack again, but Schleck was equal to the challenge, catching and then riding steadily away from him with an impressive effort which he sustained all the way to the finish. He passed the remaining stragglers from the breakaway to claim second – overtaking Quick Step’s Kevin de Weert 70 metres from home – 1:06 behind Nieve but nearly a minute ahead of Nibali, and claiming a valuable 12 bonus seconds as well.

In the red jersey group behind, Kreuziger finally blew after a sterling effort, setting the scene for a series of attacks to which Nibali was unable to respond. Rodriguez, Mosquera and Roche all went clear, with Rodriguez taking 37 seconds out of Nibali to become the new race leader by 33 seconds.

Nieve was delighted to win on a stage he had reconnoitred in advance of the race, and dedicated his win to Igor Antón, who had crashed out of the race while in the red jersey two days previously:

Everything went perfect today. I dedicate this to my team and to Igor Antón. We were doing a great job, working for Antón to win this Vuelta.

After Igor’s crash we felt it was the end of the world. Our sports directors told us we had to get through Sunday’s stage and put our minds back in the race before fighting again. I knew the climb to Cotobello, I had done it at training in August with Igor and Samuel Sanchez. It helped me a lot today. The encouragements of the crowd and above all my sports directors helped me forget the suffering.

Schleck has ridden himself back into form over the first two weeks of the race following his Tour de France crash, and was only mildly disappointed to have missed out on the stage win here:

I tried to attack and I’ve succeeded. Unfortunately there was one rider who remained ahead and he was too far to be caught. I would have liked the stage win but I’ve regained some time over all the other GC contenders, so it’s a positive day.

Despite claiming the red jersey, Rodriguez admitted he faces a huge battle to keep it all the way to Madrid:

My lead (33 seconds) over Nibali on GC isn’t big enough before the time trial at Peñafiel. Nibali is a great time triallist; he’s better than me. Ezequiel Mosquera isn’t a bad time triallist. I’ll have to ride the best time trial of my life. If I limit my loss [in the time trial] to one and a half or two minutes, it could work. Every second will count before the last mountain stage [on Saturday]. The hills of Bola del Mundo are very steep.

Nieve’s fine solo win leapfrogged him up to 11th overall. Mosquera is third, 53 seconds behind Rodriguez, with Schleck and Roche jumping up to fourth and fifth, respectively 2:16 and 3:01 behind. Schleck certainly has a chance of claiming a podium place, although the red jersey is probably now beyond him, but with the individual time trial and the 22 km beyond-category climb of Bola del Mundo on the penultimate stage still to come, he has an outside chance of one final shot at glory.

King of the Mountains leader David Moncoutié claimed the three points on offer for leading over the first third-category climb of the day, consolidating what looks increasingly like an impregnable ten-point lead over Serafín Martínez in the climbers’ competition.

The second rest day today affords the riders a much-needed opportunity to recharge the batteries before tomorrow’s 46 km time trial around Peñafiel, after which there are just four stages remaining. The race remains tight, and one mistake or moment of inspiration could yet make all the difference.

Stage 16 result:

1. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Eusakdi) 4:51:59

2. Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank) +1:06

3. Kevin de Weert (Quick Step) +1:08

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) + 1:22

5. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +1:32

General classification:

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 70:24:39

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:33

3. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:53

4. Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank) +2:16

5. Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) +3:01

6. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) +4:27

8. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) +4:29

9. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) +4:43

10. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) +4:53

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 111 pts

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 93

3. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) 90

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 88

5. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 72

Mountains classification:

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 48 pts

2. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 38

3. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) 25

4. Gonzalo Rabuñal (Xacobeo Galicia) 25

5. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Eusakdi) 21

For up-to-the-minute news, results and analysis of the race, visit either the official Vuelta website or the always excellent steephill.tv.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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