The Vuelta a Espana favourites: where they stand after nine stages

Can Contador continue to improve and challenge Quintana and Froome?

As the riders at the Vuelta a Espana enjoy the first rest day of the race in Zaragoza, we look back at the opening week of racing, analyse the attacks and defeats and study the form of the overall contenders.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar): race leader. The Colombian is the favourite who has performed the best to date, although the heat - which will continue to be a factor for at least the next few days - does not seem to do him any favours. He also nearly came a cropper in the echelons to Albacete.

The big, set-piece mountain stages with long climbs like Lagos de Covadonga and Ancares are all points in his favour, whilst Tuesday’s time trial is arguably the biggest hurdle he will face in terms of terrain. Ultimately, though, it is hard to make too many predictions about Quintana’s underlying race condition, given that up to now all he has done - and he done so very well - is follow wheels. The time trial will oblige him to put his cards on the table.

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo): second at three seconds. Nine days ago it was unclear what kind of factor Contador, battling to rush a comeback from his broken tibia in the Tour de France, would be in the race. The answer appears is now clear: a big one.

Contador’s dramatic attack at Valdelinares did not come on the steepest or hardest summit finish of the race and the damage done to those who struggled was measured in seconds, not minutes. The time trial will prove whether racing at a sustained high level is really within his possibilities. However, his chances of winning the Vuelta have increased dramatically since Jerez de la Frontera. Just how much they have increased, remains very much to be seen.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): third at eight seconds. It was a hugely impressive first week for Valverde, who has shown that despite going all out in the Tour de France, is once again on track for another top five place in the Vuelta GC.

How much higher can he go? Assuming he rides as strong a time trial as teammate and co-leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar), then the defence of Quintana’s lead, as the better climber, logically should be Movistar’s top priority. But it is entirely possible that Movistar will try to go for broke and get both their riders on the final podium in Madrid. How the two inter-react, assuming their chances of victory both rise as the race progresses, could be one of the most interesting chapters of this year’s Vuelta.

Chris Froome (Team Sky): fifth at 28 seconds. Like Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), the Briton is on the comeback trail from injuries in the Tour de France and all the signs so far are that, like the Spaniard, Froome has strong enough underlying condition to be a key factor in the race. The big tests in this year’s Vuelta have yet to come. Yet even if he was not in superb condition at Valdelinares, there was no huge time loss. And second on the La Zubia tough ascent, ahead of Contador, is a very encouraging result.

The time trial, once again, is where it will become clearest whether Froome can remain in the mix for the Vuelta. As Quintana rightly says, Froome is the favourite for the time trial and just as after the Salamanca time trial three years, it could be the point where the Briton finds himself back in the lead.

Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha): sixth at 30 seconds. Memories of Katusha’s disappointing team time trial result have been all but overshadowed now by Rodriguez’s ability to bridge the gap to Alberto Contador on Sunday at Valdelinares. The steep, badly surfaced uphill finish on Wednesday favours the Catalan climber the best of all the favourites and in all the fuss about Contador’s return to shape, Rodriguez has managed to fly under the radar throughout the first week. Assuming he does not lose time in Tuesday’s technical race against the clock, Rodriguez would go very fast from being one of the outside favourites to one of the top contenders.

Fabio Aru (Astana): seventh at 1:06. The Giro d’Italia podium finisher is one of the biggest mysteries in this year’s Vuelta. He is clearly on form but it is difficult to predict just how well he can do overall against such big-name opposition. However in the two Grand Tours Aru has raced so far in his career, the third week has always been his best. The technical, hilly, nature of Tuesday’s time trial could favour him enormously - to judge on past results on similar terrain like in Barolo in the Giro d’Italia this year. But so far his performance in the Vuelta has been consistent, rather than dramatic.

Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): ninth at 1:26. A similar case to Aru. The double Giro d’Italia runner-up has yet to stick his head above the parapet with any kind of attack, and while not performing well at La Zubia’s summit finish, he has yet to loose a significant amount of time. And once again Tuesday’s technical course should suit the Colombian.

Samuel Sánchez (BMC): 13th at 1:35. Riding in heat has never been his strong point and the stages on which he is likely to shine - Covadonga and La Farrapona in his native Asturias region, are yet to come.

Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp): 15th at 1:42. Like Sánchez, the Irishman struggled with the heat in the La Zubia summit finish but Sunday’s attack at Valdelinares was the only serious GC attack anyone had made until Contador went clear. On the up.

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