It was expected to be a day for the breakaway. The favourites would be keeping their powder dry for the penultimate stage, the summit finish to the Bola del Mundo, and the peloton would let the breakaway fight it out for the spoils of the stage win.
Except someone forgot to tell Alberto Contador. He and his Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team-mates turned the Vuelta on its head with an audacious and stunning attack over 50km from the finish to take stage 17 and, vitally, the race leader’s red jersey.
The Spaniard well and truly stuck the knife into Joaquin Rodriguez’s chances of overall victory. His compatriot on the Katusha team finished over two and a half minutes behind Contador and lost the lead in a race that just five hours earlier he must have believed he had all but won.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) twisted the knife further, almost catching Contador on the line but leapfrogging Rodriguez into second place overall.
Stage for the break?
Following the second rest day and a brutal three days in the Asturias, demand was high to make the breakaway, in particular amongst the 14 teams yet to win a stage. A long but gentle finishing climb offered, it seemed, little for the overall favourites to make a difference.
Indeed it took around 80km, raced at speeds nudging 48kmph, for eleven riders to break clear. Yet they returned to the sights of a peloton chasing hard with a little over 60km to race on the slopes of the third category Collado de Ozalba.
A large chase group swiftly splintered clear and contained, crucially, three riders from Saxo Bank and two from Movistar.
Contador makes his move
Right on cue, Contador surged clear from the bunch and joined his team-mates to execute the plan. A tired Rodriguez was caught off guard and seemed incapable of halting the action unfolding in front of him despite his best efforts at the head of the chase.
The shallow gradients of the final climb to Fuente De suited the powerful Contador above the punchy Rodriguez and it showed. In fact it was Valverde who came close to unravelling Contador’s plan, jumping clear of Rodriguez and teaming up with his two Movistar team-mates up the road.
Six seconds was the closest Valverde came to Contador, right on the finish line, but it was enough to claim second overall as Rodriguez finished a further 2-31 back.
Britain’s Chris Froome (Sky), who suffered on the previous stage to the Cuitu Negru, was once again off the pace and finished nearly five minutes down on Contador. His fight for the podium is well and truly over, but his three minute lead over Daniel Moreno (Katusha) looks to be enough for fourth overall.
In the fight for the podium, the tables have been turned. Where Contador spent his rest day plotting to take the red jersey from Rodriguez’s shoulders, that task is now handed to Rodriguez and Valverde.
Yet with just four stages remaining their time is fast running out.
Vuelta a Espana, stage 17: Santander to Fuente De, 187.3km
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank 4h 29-20
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 6 seconds
3. Sergio Henao (Col) Sky s.t.
4. Gorka Verdugo (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi s.t.
5. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 19 seconds
6. Jan Bakelants (Bel) Radioshack-Nissan at 55 seconds
7. Benat Intxausti (Spa) Movistar at 1-13
8. Alexandre Geniez (Fra) Argos-Shimano at 1-40
9. Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Astana at 2-13
10. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 2-38
32. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky at 4-58
Overall standings after stage 17
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank 68h 7-54
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 1-52
3. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 2-28
4. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky at 9-40
5. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha at 11-36
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 12-06
7. Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank at 12-55
8. Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin-Sharp at 13-06
9. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 13-49
10. Benat Intxausti (Spa) Movistar at 14-10
Alberto Contador and Bjarne Riis
Joaquin Rodriguez at finish
Alberto Contador on the podium
Chris Froome at the finish
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Coverage index
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Reports
Stage one report: Movistar win team time trial
Stage two report: Degenkolb wins, Swift third
Stage three report: Valverde victorious after Contador attacks
Stage four report: Rodriguez takes over lead after Valverde crashes
Stage five report: Degenkolb wins again
Stage six report: Froome gains time on Contador
Stage seven report: Degenkolb makes it three at Vuelta
Stage eight report: Valverde doubles his score in Andorra
Stage nine report: Gilbert pips Rodriguez in Barcelona
Stage 10 report: Degenkolb continues unbeaten sprint record
Stage 11: Rodriguez hangs onto lead as Kessiakoff wins time trial
Stage 12: Rodriguez wins stage 12 to extend Vuelta lead
Stage 13: Cummings returns to winner’s circle in Spain
Stage 14: Rodriguez stakes claim with Vuelta mountain-top win
Stage 15: Rodriguez rules at Covadonga as Froome loses time
Stage 16: Rodriguez strengthens lead as Froome keeps fourth
Stage 17: Contador turns Vuelta upside down with stunning stage win
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Photos
Stage one TTT gallery
Stage two gallery
Stage three gallery
Stage four gallery
Stage five gallery
Stage six gallery
Stage seven gallery
Stage eight gallery
Stage nine gallery
Stage 10 gallery
Stage 11 gallery
Stage 12 gallery
Stage 13 gallery
Stage 14 gallery
Stage 15 gallery
Stage 16 gallery
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Start list
Vuelta a Espana 2012: Route info and analysis
Vuelta a Espana 2012 route revealed
Vuelta 2012 route leaves time triallists out in the cold