Alberto Contador produced the near perfect sign off to his Vuelta a Espana and thus his cycling career; with the Trek-Segafredo rider taking the win in stage 20.  It wasn’t quite enough to take a step on the GC podium, but Contador said goodbye brilliantly; winning ahead of the Team Sky duo of Wout Poels and Chris Froome who just about wrapped up his first Vuelta triumph.

It would surely be the day that would confirm either way whether Chris Froome would win the 2017 Vuelta a Espana.  The 117.5km from Corvera de Asturias and Alto de L’Angliru took in three climbs with two category 1 climbs giving way to the final HC climb of 12.5km; which hit sections of 21.6-23.5%.

The break of the day formed early on in the stage and once again featured a host of top names.  Julian Alaphilippe of Quick-Step Floors, Nicolas Roche of BMC Racing, the two Yates brothers of Orica-SCOTT, Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale, Rui Costa of UAE Team Emirates, two-time stage winner this year Tomasz Marczynski of Lotto Soudal were among the 18 riders to make the break.  Unlike yesterday, the break were allowed nowhere near the freedom to build a significant lead.  The peloton kept them on a tight leash though, not allowing the break to get much more than 1.30mins.

It was interesting to note the change in teams controlling the peloton.  Rather than Team Sky, it was Katusha-Alpecin alongside Bora-Hansgrohe who were setting the pace with 46km remaining.  At this point the gap was sitting at 1.09min.  As the first climb came into view Team Sky moved to the front of the peloton as the break’s first attack went clear courtesy of Enric Mas and Jan Polanc.  It was on this climb that the break basically completely obliterated.  Tomasz Marczynski was part of a small group that bridged across to the duo, but Enric Mas of Quick-Step Floors was in no mood to mess about, stretching the field again as the rain came down.  Romain Bardet was present in that leading group, as was Marc Soler of Movistar.

 

Chris Froome can afford to smile with only the procession into Madrid remaining, photo Sirotti

1km from the summit the gap to the peloton had grown to 1.40mins and the breakaway had had a bit of a reshuffle again, with both Simon and Adam Yates making it into the leading group which was now at 11-strong.  That group crested the top with 1.25mins in hand as Marczynski led the group over the summit.

The wet roads made for some very nervous descents.  Vincenzo Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida squad sensed an opportunity to push things along, and while ultimately unsuccessful in dropping Team Sky, the pressure put on by Bahrain-Merida did shake several riders off the pace; with many very nervous riders not wanting to come to harm.  One of those not in the group was Ilnur Zakarin, who had been conservative on the descent, and Trek-Segafredo noticed this, with Jarlinson Pantano pushing the pace on the front of the peloton on the second climb of the day.

In the breakaway Soren Kragh Andersen of Team Sunweb looked strong as he set the pace before an attack went clear from Marc Soler.  The Movistar rider found himself out on his own but the breakaway group behind gradually brought him back into the fold.  All the while Pantano continued to drive the peloton, picking up breakaway stragglers who’d fallen behind much earlier.  Meanwhile Ilur Zakarin was making his way back towards the GC group, along with Fabio Aru and David de la Cruz.

Up ahead Soler had been caught and the breakaway group had again resettled a bit.    But the gap was shrinking to the peloton who were now just 28 seconds behind with 1km to go.  After finding himself off the back of the bunch, de la Cruz proceeded to launch an attack, maybe in the hope of not being caught out on the descent this time.  Meanwhile Romain Bardet also put in a surge on the front of the break, before another attack from Marc Soler saw him crest the summit solo.

With less than 20km to go then it was Soler descending as quickly as possible despite the rain, and pushing out the advantage to upwards of 40 seconds.  But then Soler hit the deck in the rain, crashing to the ground while in the lead.  This meant that the leader on the road was now Tomasz Marczynski.  The Pole’s lead continued to grow out to close to a minute, finally tapping the minute mark at 15km to go.  Marc Soler was not the only rider to go down on the descent, with David de la Cruz coming down and this time sustaining an injury which would sadly force I’m out of the race.

Marczynski hit the base of the climb alone, with 19 seconds in hand over Andersen and Bardet, while the peloton saw an attack go clear courtesy of Jarlinson Pantano, Enric Mas and Alberto Contador.  The peloton was 1.10mins back on Marczynski and very quickly their attack saw nearly 30 seconds open up straight away to the peloton.

The time gap between Marczynski and Contador was coming down as with Pantano and Mas for company Contador proceeded to mop up the road.  Meanwhile Team Sunweb were forced on the defensive as Kelderman looked to protect his third place overall.  The team in black and white moved to the front as Pantano dropped off the pace, leaving Contador and Mas out in front.  The Quick-Step Floors rider was happy to set the tempo for the great Spaniard, while they also had the company of Simon Yates.  

Eventually Contador led a group containing the courageous Marc Soler, Romain Bardet, Enric Mas and Simon Yates to catch Marczynski with 8.3km to go.  Yates was suffering though and just as the catch was being made he fell back again.  Their lead to the Froome group was 44 seconds with 8km left to race.  Team Sky looked comfortable on the front of the race, with plenty of support for Chris Froome.  At this point the team hadn’t been put under any real pressure, but the same could not be said for the rest of the GC contenders who were reduced to just about a dozen riders now.

Up front Contador looked in control as he led the race through 6km to go.  Meanwhile Bahrain-Merida had moved to the front of the Froome group again, while eventually Contador dropped all but Marc Soler and continued to push forward approaching 5km to go.  Finally with 5.5km remaining Soler cracked, leaving Contador out in front and alone with a 50 second lead that was steadily growing.  

The GC group had been reduced now to Vincenzo Nibali, Michael Woods, Chris Froome, Wout Poels, Steven Kruijswijk, Wilco Kelderman, Ilnur Zakarin and just a couple of others as time gaps once again emerged for the majority of GC contenders.  Kruijswijk launched an attack of his own and managed to put a little distance into the Froome group, but he was still a minute behind Contador with 4km remaining.

Arms aloft and nothing but deserved. Alberto Contador wins stage 20 of Vuelta a Espana, photo Sirotti

Contador was closing in on what would be a famous stage win and the crowd were loving it as the Spaniard hit some of the steepest sections of the race.  His lead to the Froome group had built to 1.22mins, which would put him in the virtual third place overall.  Knowing that his podium position could be slipping away from him Zakarin now took over the lead in the Froome group.  The pressure finally told for Vincenzo Nibali who cracked, leaving just Wout Poels, Chris Froome, Ilnur Zakarin and Wilco Kelderman.

Next to attack was Chris Froome, putting a stamp on his GC triumph.  He quickly put distance into Zakarin and Kelderman, and was joined by his teammate Poels.  Meanwhile Vincenzo Nibali had teammate Franco Pelizotti for company, while Kelderman was now beginning to suffer as Zakarin left him behind and went off in pursuit of Froome and Poels.

Poels was now leading Froome and setting a strong tempo that was just strong enough to keep Zakarin at bay.  They’d closed in on Contador too, with the Spaniard now less than 30 seconds ahead with 1km to go.  But the Spaniard was holding on, cheered on by the boisterous crowd as Zakarin looked to keep Froome in his sights and put enough distance between himself and Kelderman to climb from 4th to 3rd overall.  With less than 700m to go the climbing finally came to an end.  Contador was closing in on the win but was also thinking of gaining time for a potential podium finish himself.  With 75m remaining he began to celebrate and with his trademark il pistolero salute crossed the line.

Poels and Froome crossed the line 17 seconds behind Contador, with Ilur Zakarin stopping the clock at 35 seconds, enough to stop Contador from overtaking him overall, but was it enough to overtake Kelderman?  Eventually the answer came as Kelderman faded badly, finally dropping from third to fifth overall and losing third place to Zakarin by 24 seconds.

Sam Bewley of Orica-SCOTT was the first of the Kiwis to cross the line, with himself Aaron Gate of Aqua Blue Sport and Tom Scully of Cannondale-Drapac all finishing, and now able to make the most of the final flat stage to Madrid.

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