Another breathlessly hot day in the Basque Country, and another day for race leader Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) to withstand the onslaught from second-placed Chris Froome and Team Sky – for which, read Chris Froome, because Team Sky provided him with precious little support.
In the team car, Steven De Jong is a former pro lead-out man who worked for Robbie McEwen and Oscar Freire. Few are more qualified to direct a disciplined pace line of riders to deliver their man to point x at the prescribed hour. Yet the Sky riders who weren’t dropped on the Urkiola were spread out randomly along the peloton, and the outstanding Froome was left requiring the aid of the observant Wiggins in order to keep his time deficit to 13 seconds.
The race road book positioned the second intermediate sprint of the day at km 119.2. For reasons yet to be explained – the race organisation was unable to provide an account of their reasoning when contacted by telephone this afternoon – the sprint point was moved to the village of Arroiabe, at approximately km.168.5.
Froome, nervous (De Jong’s word), perhaps feeling the tension of those 13 secs – so near, so far – and with Cobo irritatingly welded to his rear wheel all day, glimpsed an official race banner across the road and, mistaking the 20 to go marker with the intermediate sprint line, launched a tremendous attack. Cobo and Sastre, no doubt forewarned of the approaching village, were immediately on his wheel. They passed the banner in that order: Froome, Cobo, Sastre. But the bonus seconds were three kilometres further on – and Wiggins switched into Madison mode to take third place, behind Carlos Barredo, the sole survivor of 27 riders who made the early breakaway after 8 km, and Sastre, who had continued his effort.
De La Fuente, the domestique of the Vuelta, I would suggest, and Cobo, were on Wiggins’ wheel.
Sastre dropped Barredo and rode alone as far as the 3km banner. But, in an object lesson to Team Sky, Leopard-Trek’s pace line, so well drilled that, even in the face of impending fusion with another team, delivered Daniele Bennati to the front of the race so precisely that he couldn’t fail to win.
Mollema was 9th, Rodríguez 11th: they are now tied on points, with Joaquím leading on stage wins. The green jersey will be decided tomorrow.
The breakaway neutralised the mountains competition, so Moncoutié has, with great economy of effort, won himself a fourth title, with a stage win as well. Taaramae’s success and the attacking of Fouchard and Maté – as well as Nico Sijmens’ superb ride to foil Montaguti’s effort on the road to Noja – have made this a successful Vuelta for Cofidis.
Geox-TMC, too, have ridden a tactically sound final week. Barring the unforeseen, Cobo will top the final podium tomorrow night, with Froome and Wiggins on either side, after a gripping struggle for victory. Then, there will be contracts to sign, and Team Sky's wage bill could go up £300,000 in the time ti takes to scribble Christopher Froome and David John Brailsford.