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Stage 19 of this thrilling Vuelta a Espana saw Christopher Horner once again break the resolve of Vincenzo Nibali to reverse his three second time deficit, steal the leader’s red jersey and establish a three second gap to the Italian.
Headed in to the penultimate stage of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana, the Grand Tour is set to become one of the closest battles for the overall race victory in cycling history.
While the breakaway may have been favourites to claim yet another stage victory, the hard work of Team Katusha saw the breakaway never extend their advantage beyond three minutes and thirty seconds.
Thus the stage became a battle between the general classification riders to determine would would win the stage, who would claim the bonus seconds, and to see who might crack under the pressure.
Approaching the Alto del Naranco it was Team Saxo-Tinkoff who set a fierce pace at the fore of a reduced peloton.
With Irish cyclist Nicolas Roche close to Alejandro Valverde of Team Movistar in the points classification contest for the green jersey, the Danish team attempted to set-up the Irishman for the stage victory.
The relentless pace saw some notable riders lose further time to their rivals in the GC, with Thibaut Pinot of FDJ.fr losing contact with the group of favourites within two kilometres of the finishing line.
Nicolas Roche attempted to break free of the group of favourites after Team Saxo-Tinkoff had exhausted all their support riders, however his attempts were ultimately in vain.
Counter-attacks from Michele Scarponi and Diego Ulissi saw Lampre-Merida competing for the stage victory. However, when Joaquim Rodriguez launched his own attack just before the Flamme Rouge, the one kilometre to go marker, no one was able to follow his explosive acceleration.
The Spaniard from Cataluyna cycled away for a solo victory, ahead of Diego Ulissi and teammate Daniel Moreno.
Chris Horner crossed the finishing line some 14 seconds down on stage winner ‘Purito’, conceding 24 seconds overall to the Spaniard in the GC.
Vincenzo Nibali arrived six seconds after Chris Horner to concede the Maillot Rojo (Red Jersey) to the almost-42-year-old veteran Radioshack-Leopard rider.
Ahead of tomorrow’s gruelling finale upon the murderous slopes of the Alto de L’Angliru Horner leads the GC, with six seconds to Nibali, 1’06” to Valverde, and 1’57” ahead of Purito.
The American now looks set to claim his first ever Grand Tour victory by perhaps the closest of margins.
However, the Alto de L’Angliru is not a contest between the strongest climbers but rather a painful contest of sheer survival.
Featured in the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, L’Angliru features a maxium gradient of 23.5 percent and an average gradient of 10.2%.
Despite not being as lengthy as some of the climbs in the Pyrenees, the Alto de L’Angliru compensates for it through sheer difficulty, with five consecutive kilometres of gradients above 10% only ending after the Flamme Rouge.