On one of the steepest mountain finishes in Grand Tour history, Vuelta leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) held firm against a barrage of attacks from rival Alberto Contador to take another step towards Vuelta glory.
A few minutes in front, all-day breakaway Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) battled to stage 16 victory on the precipitous finish at the Asturian ski station Cuitu Negru.
The last climb’s opening 21 kilometres up the existing Pajares climb made it tough enough, but the man-made final three, on recently tarmacked road which often touched in excess of twenty-per cent, made it downright cruel, albeit a spectacle.
Audacious moves and bluffs
After a fast, frenetic start, Cataldo and Giro third place-finisher Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) stole away 50 kilometres into the race.
They gained a maximum of thirteen minutes as the bunch tapped up the Puerto de San Lorenzo and Alto de la Cobertoria waited for the fierce final haul.
The race leaders appeared to be more interested in shadowboxing. Race leader Rodriguez fell to the back of the pack on the Cobertoria, and Valverde and Contador joined him, taking a gander at whether their rival was bluffing.
Contador’s searing attacks
Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank hit the front for Contador on the lower slopes of the final ascent, setting a rapid pace which left Sky leader Chris Froome hanging on at the back.
Contador’s first significant acceleration came with six kilometres to go, taking Rodriguez, fourth-placed overall Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the latter’s teammate Nairo Quintana away from the rest.
Again and again the Spaniard surged. Onto the freshly-laid tarmac and the final three-kilometre haul up to Cuitu Negru, another bid from Contador on 23% gradient dropped Valverde, but he could not get rid of Rodriguez.
In front, it was cycling in slow motion as Cataldo painstakingly crawled to the finish line on the 22% gradient to edge out De Gendt.
Having kept Contador at bay, Rodriguez surged two hundred metres out and added a few more precious seconds to his slender lead.
Froome keeps hold of fourth overall
Valverde couldn’t match the pair’s constant accelerations, but his well-judged pace ensured he finished within twenty seconds to extend his lead over Chris Froome in fourth place overall.
The Team Sky leader finished two and a quarter minutes later in fourteenth, grinding and grimacing up the punishing final pitches of the climb.
In taking on two Grand Tours at full bore, he may have bitten off more than he could chew.
The Vuelta has its second rest day in Santander tomorrow.
Rodriguez only leads Contador by twenty-eight seconds. With three predominantly flat stages to come, the 2012 Vuelta will surely be decided on Saturday’s twentieth and penultimate stage, with its finish on the mountain of Bola del Mundo.
Vuelta a Espana 2012, stage 16: Gijon to Valgrande-Pajares Cuitu Negru, 183.5km
1. Dario Cataldo (Ita) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 5-18-28
2. Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Vacansoleil-DCM at 7secs
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 2-39
4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at 2-41
5. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 2-58
6. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar at 3-24
7. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4-07
8. Andrew Talansky (Usa) Garmiin-Sharp at 4-15
9. Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank at 4-18
10. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 4-21
14. Chris Froome (Gbr) Team Sky at 5-11
20. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 6-58
General classification after stage 16
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha 63-38-24
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Sungard at 28secs
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 2-04
4. Chris Froome (Gbr) Team Sky at 4-52
5. Dani Moreno (Spa) Katusha at 6-58
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 7-28
7. Andrew Talansky (Usa) Garmin-Sharp at 8-28
8. Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank at 9-00
9. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 9-11
10. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Ag2r-La Mondiale at 11-44
Robert Gesink and Andrew Talansky
Dario Cataldo wins from an escape
Alberto Contador, Joaquin Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde
Chris Froome comes in
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
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
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