If ever a narrow defeat felt like a victory of sorts for Alberto Contador, it was this one. He began stage 17 of the Tour de France some 4:25 down on Chris Froome (Sky) and mindful that any further misstep in the hilly time trial would see the yellow jersey move emphatically out of reach.
Instead, Contador somehow conjured some of his time trialling vim of old to lead through both of the intermediate check points before ultimately settling for second place on the stage, 9 seconds down on Froome. As the Tour reaches its endgame in the Alps, the Spaniard lies in second place overall and still – just about – in contact with the seemingly unassailable Froome.
“It was good and I'm happy because it's good to be so close, although at the same time, it’s true that it was a shame not to win when the gap was so small,” said Contador, who led Froome by two seconds at the first check and by 11 after the second, with 12 kilometres still to race.
“Froome is at an impressive level both uphill and in the time trial and so even though I had the best time, when I saw he was still up there, I was mentally prepared for the likelihood that he would overtake me.”
While Froome opted to switch to a time trial bike for the finale, which saw the course drop into Chorges, Contador decided to stick with the same machine he had used on the ascents of the category two climbs of the Côte de Puy-Sanieres and the Côte de Réallon. He suggested, too, that he was happy simply to more or less break even with Froome ahead of three successive days of hardship in the Alps.
“On the last descent it started to rain and I decided to go a little softer because I had a fall yesterday,” said Contador. “I don’t know if Froome risked or not in the finale. All I'm saying is that I didn’t wanted to risk, because yesterday I crashed and did not want to repeat. I preferred to lose a little time, because I have really swollen knee from that crash and I didn’t want to take another blow to it, because that would make things complicated for tomorrow.”
Although he won the Vuelta a España last September, there is a sense that Contador has not been quite the force of old since returning from his suspension for a positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France. Even before that six-month lay-off, however, he was arguably no longer the same time triallist who had beaten no less a figure than Fabian Cancellara in the final time trial of the 2009 Tour.
Wednesday was Contador’s best display in a Tour time trial since that day in Annecy four years ago, but for all of his vigour on the climbs on the parcours, however, it would be false to assume that he lost the stage purely because of displaying caution in the finale. If anything, Contador made gains on Froome by throwing himself into the descent of the Puy-Sanieres and he was in fact nine seconds slower than the yellow jersey on the final climb itself. (Froome himself covered the 6.9km climb in 16:31, 7 seconds slower than Joaquim Rodriguez).
No matter, Contador lines up for Thursday’s stage to Alpe-d’Huez optimistic that he can continue to wage war on Froome’s sizeable overall lead. His efforts on Wednesday have seen him move ahead of Bauke Mollema (Belkin) and into second overall, but he reiterated that he is not racing for a podium place.
“Not at all, we must try to see if we can climb into the top position,” he said. “It’s is true that Froome is impressive, but there are some tough days, and when you're second it’s easier to move up to first. Froome is very strong, but we can still use the great team that I have to give me a hand.”
As if to illustrate the point, Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff teammate Roman Kreuziger now lies in third place overall after he, too, produced a remarkable performance against the watch, placing fourth, 23 seconds down on Froome. Already on the offensive on Tuesday’s stage to gap, the Saxo-Tinkoff pair appears to be rejuvenated since the Tour’s second rest day.
“We’ve been saying from the first week that we’re here and that we’re going to fight until Paris,” Kreuziger said after finishing his effort. “We are all focused and the spirit of the team is to fight so we will do it until the last day.”