Two years after he last raced - and won - the Vuelta a España, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) moved back into the lead of his home Grand Tour after taking fourth behind defending World TT Champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in the Vuelta’s crucial mid-race time trial.
Only one pre-race favourite, Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), finished ahead of Contador, beating him by 24 seconds.
But aside from Urán, who moves up to third overall, Contador proved to be ahead of the game. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) was his closest pursuer, nine seconds back, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) turning in an excellent performance to finis just 22 seconds back.
Of all of those defeated, and with a permanent question mark now hanging over what Quintana might have been able to do in the second half of the course, Chris Froome (Sky) suffered the most surprising losses, finishing 53 seconds behind Contador, who now has a 27 second margin over second placed Valverde.
Come what may, for Contador, following his broken tibia in the Tour, taking the Vuelta lead was a triumph to savour, and as he put it afterwards, “I’m very pleased. I’d never have thought this was possible when I started the Vuelta.”
It was only yesterday afternoon when Contador said he was going to try and win the Vuelta for the first time, and the first step, at least, could hardly have gone better.
“To be honest, I’m racing this now without any pressure, I will take this day-by-day and the rest of what happens in this race is not yet clear.”
“If I win it - great, but either way, I’m tremendously satisfied with what I’ve done so far.”
His reference point in the time trial was, he said, Froome, widely seen as the pre-stage favourite.
“I hoped that at best I could equal him,” Contador said. “I never thought I could beat him.”
It was pointed out that Contador’s team is perhaps now his weak point: although he has a strong team for the flatter parts of the race.
“There’s a long way to go, for sure, and in some ways the ideal thing would be to let the jersey go and then get it back in the time trial on the last day.”
“It’s good to lead, because you have the edge on your rivals, but I’m very conscious there is a long way to go before the finish. I remember the Dauphine, where I was leading on the last day and then the whole thing fell apart.”
The best form of defence is attack, as the saying goes, and Contador could have an opportunity to do that tomorrow at Saint Miguel De Aralar. The gaps on his rivals are minimal and with six riders at less than two minutes, Contador will certainly be under pressure.
“The advantage, now, is that I can wait for my rivals to make a move,” Contador observed, “but we will have to see how my legs are feeling after a hard time trial like today’s.”