Alberto Contador threw caution to the wind, making a trade-mark long attack 27 kilometers from the end of a grueling stage 15. An incredibly strong Miguel López (Astana) saw opportunity and jumped with Contador; they would go on to catch Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and later Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) giving, at least on paper, enough firepower to the move. But it was a far to go on a relentless climb, and after two weeks into a three-week Grand Tour, the legs were questionable.
The quartet stretched their lead gap to 75 seconds, but there was no panic from the Team Sky-led rivals group behind.
"I wanted to be brave and see what would happen behind me, but Sky has a very powerful team, and that made it complicated," said Contador. "I knew it was a risk, but I preferred to take it."
While Contador pressed on, he received minimal help; only López had the strength left to offer something to the audacious move. With just over five kilometers to go, Kruijswijk fell off the pace, and moments later, López made his winning attack. Contador and Bardet, their fatigue evident, had nothing left to match the Colombian who clearly had found some great form in the Vuelta's second week.
López powered away and quickly caught and disposed of Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), the final remnant of the earlier attackers, who had been out front in a solo brave haul for glory. López never eased over the following kilometers, almost like he was in stage 3 instead of 15, to take the win by 36 seconds, leapfrogging from 10th into 6th GC.
Behind, Contador's and Bardet's effort was over. The GC rivals group swept them up, and as Sky continued to increase their pace over the final kilometers, Contador lost their wheels 1500 meters from the finish.
"It was very long, and that caught up to me in the end, and I struggled to finish, but I do not regret what I did," Contador continued. "It is my way of racing. It was difficult to keep up with the pace at the end because we went at a very fast pace ahead, and in the middle part of the climb, it was more comfortable to be in the group. That made me pay at the end, but you have to run the way you want, and I enjoy this."
When Contador crossed the line, he had lost well over 30 seconds to his rivals and dropped from 8th to 9th GC.
"Today I lost time, but nothing changes for the last week. I tried. Now I want to recover and think about the time trial on Tuesday," ended Contador, who may have lost a battle today, but has not left the war.