On the eve of the Vuelta a España, Alberto Contador spoke hopefully of making his way calmly through the first ten days of the race before assessing his chances of challenging for final overall victory.
After a week of racing, Contador’s optimism about his condition seems justified – he lies in third place overall, 18 seconds off the red jersey – but there have been precious few oases of calm to be found amid this Vuelta’s furious opening exchanges.
Stage 7 to Alcaudete seemed destined to be a transitional stage where détente would reign among the overall contenders, but instead it was just as frenetic as everything that has come before. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) raised antennae by attempting to infiltrate the early break, while Chris Froome (Sky) crashed as the peloton scrambled to respond but then clipped off the front in the finale to peg back two seconds on his rivals.
At the finish line, Contador could only laugh joylessly when asked if he had expected a calm day for the overall contenders. “Just ask Froome, who crashed today,” he said. “The roads are very slippery and it means that you had to be very careful. Over 40 kilometres went by before the break got away so it was a very fast start.”
Tinkoff-Saxo and Movistar were riding on the front when Froome crashed but Contador denied that they had upped the pace as he chased on behind. At one point, Froome was over a minute down on the head of the peloton, but he was able to latch back on after a 15-kilometre pursuit.
“Froome lost a minute because he had a mechanical problem but nobody was pulling in front,” Contador said. “We were expecting everything to regroup and for it to be a quiet day.”
Once Froome had rejoined the peloton, it looked as though there would be a general truce among the overall contenders but such hopes were dashed as the pace ratcheted upwards once again in the closing kilometres.
On the long drag to the finish line, Froome stole a march on his overall rivals by accelerating in the company of Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), gaining a brace of seconds on the peloton.
Perhaps anticipating such a move from the red jersey, Contador had opted to mark Alejandro Valverde’s rear wheel in the final kilometre, and he expressed surprise that the Movistar man had not responded to Froome’s move.
“I decided to take the wheel of Alejandro because I thought Valverde was going to close the gap that Froome had opened,” Contador said. “I was surprised that Alejandro didn’t go and I don’t know if we lost any time to him at the end.”
Contador withstood the forcing of Valverde on the race’s first summit finish at La Zubia on Thursday, fuelling home hopes that he has made an improbably smooth recovery from the fractured tibia that ended his Tour de France prematurely in July.
As has been his refrain since the start in Jerez, however, Contador insisted that he could not assess his overall possibilities at this Vuelta until after the individual time trial near Zaragoza on Tuesday. He did, however, admit that his race to date has surpassed expectations.
“It’s s going better than I anticipated, much better, but I'm still cautious,” he said. “I know that only one week of race has the passed, but maybe it was the hardest week for me.”