By Richard Martin
(Reuters) – Britain’s Chris Froome maintained his Vuelta a Espana lead of one minute 37 seconds over nearest challenger Vincenzo Nibali on Friday ahead of the decisive final mountain stage.
Froome, bidding to become the first rider in 39 years to win the Vuelta and the Tour de France in the same season, finished the 19th stage along with Italy’s Nibali and 28 other riders.
There were no major changes in the general classification, with only one mountain stage on Saturday remaining in the 21-day race, which ends with Sunday’s procession into Madrid.
Belgian Thomas de Gendt finished strongest in the bunch sprint at the front of a nine-man breakaway group to take his first Vuelta stage win, completing his set of victories from each of the grand tours.
De Gendt outlasted Colombian Jarlinson Pantano and Spaniard Ivan Garcia at the finish line, meaning no home rider has won a stage on this year’s Vuelta with two days to go.
The last time a Spaniard failed to win a stage on the Vuelta was in 1996, Spanish cycling great Miguel Indurain’s last race.
Home favorite Alberto Contador, who is also in his last race as a professional, staged another brave attack as he continued to chase a podium place.
He led the general classification group of riders by over 20 seconds toward the end before being hovered up by the group with 2.5km remaining.
“I rode with my heart today, I’m aware of these stages I’m not really going to be allowed to win but today I had good sensations and I thought I’d go for it,” Contador, a three-time Vuelta winner, told reporters.
Saturday’s penultimate stage is a short, sharp 117.5 km ride ending on the notorious Alto de l´Angliru, regarded as one of the toughest mountains in Spain.
Contador sealed his first Vuelta victory thanks to a stage win on the Angliru in 2008, while the mountain also decided the 2011 and 2013 editions of the race.
If Froome can stave off Nibali there, he will almost certainly become the first rider since French great Bernard Hinault in 1978 to win the Vuelta and the Tour de France in the same season.
“For us today, and for me certainly, it was about saving as much energy as possible and getting through the day without any big issues,” Froome said.
“I’m quite happy to put today behind us, and we’re just focusing everything on tomorrow now. Of course it’s an extremely hard climb the Angliru.
“It’s a very short stage, we could see fireworks from the start tomorrow and there are some other tough climbs before the Angliru.
“I think everyone’s tired at this point in the race, but I feel good and the team’s good, so hopefully we can finish it off tomorrow.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)