So near but so far: Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) has remained in second place overall in the Volta a Catalunya after covering all of his rival’s attacks barring the last by Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who moves ahead of the Spaniard and into the race lead.
With so many top names so close together on time prior to stage 4, by far the toughest and the most decisive of the entire race, the final kilometres of Port Ainé were always likely to see the sparks fly - and so it proved.
Contador, having distanced leader Dan Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) some two kilometres from the line, and by default - with Martin struggling - the best-placed favourite in the race, was faced with the uphill task of then keeping all of his rivals for the lead under control at a point when he was running out of energy himself. Finally, as Quintana shot away, Contador was left trying to limit the damage and hoping that his 13 margin on GC on the Colombian would be sufficient.
It didn’t work out. Instead, Contador was caught by BMC Racing co-leader Richie Porte, who followed up his teammate Tejay Van Garderen’s ultra-strong challenge - which had effectively opened up the final round of hostilities on the snowlined summit of Port Ainé - with his own counter-attack.
Porte even edged the Spaniard out for third place behind stage winner Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Quintana, which left Contador in fourth place, 15 seconds down on Quintana and outside the time bonuses.
Overall the Spaniard is now eight seconds back on Quintana, a minimal margin but which in a race like Catalunya, won by four seconds last year by Porte over Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde, such small gaps are often decisive.
“There was a real avalanche of attacks in the last kilometres,” Contador recounted. “I tested Dan Martin, saw he was in trouble, but then I went after Van Garderen because I couldn’t let him go just like that, he was too dangerous.”
“I really paid for that effort to chase him down and then from that moment onwards, we all went for it - Porte, Quintana, me….In one of those moves, Quintana really went for it and I had to catch my breath, and when I had done that, it was impossible to get him back. All I can do now is congratulate him on a fine win.”
Contador is never one to give up easily - as Sky’s Geraint Thomas found out in Paris-Nice, where Contador battled him down to the last climb of the last day for the leadership. But the terrain in Catalunya’s last three stages offers few opportunities for Contador or any of Quintana’s other rivals to try and regain time on him.
“Movistar have a very strong team here;” Contador said, “but we’ll look at the upcoming stages and see what we can do.”