Right up until two kilometres from the summit of Valdelinares, it seemed as though Team Sky’s normal programming had been resumed. A flotilla of men in black had dictated terms through the final two hours of stage 9 of the Vuelta a España, and in the dwindling red jersey group, the overall contenders seemed almost to be bracing themselves for the ferocity of Chris Froome’s inevitable attack.
Instead, however, it was Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) who emerged from behind the heavy curtain of rain that washed over the mountainside, responding to an attack from Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and then bounding past him on the last steep ramps of the climb.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) eventually thrashed their way up to Contador’s wheel, while Froome – not quite floundering, but not exactly treading water either – reached the summit 23 seconds down on the trio.
As Froome warmed down outside his team bus after the stage, he managed to raise a half smile as a local fan posed for a picture in front of him, and by the time he spoke to a small group of reporters, he looked to put a positive slant on what was a trying day.
“It was really tough conditions but I think we can take a lot of good away from that stage in terms of how we rode as a team,” Froome said. “They kept me at the front throughout the stage but in the final I didn’t have the legs to follow the top guys, Quintana, Contador and Rodriguez when they went.”
Froome scaled the Vuelta’s first summit finish at La Zubia on Thursday at the same remarkable rate of knots as Contador and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), suggesting that he had already brought himself back up to racing sharpness following his early abandon at the Tour de France. It was a surprise, therefore, to see the Briton on the back foot on the steadier slopes of Valdelinares.
“I think given where I’ve come from on the back of the Tour, on the back of the build-up into this race, I’m really happy with how things have gone so far,” Froome said. “I can definitely feel I’m starting to pick up that race rhythm again back into my legs so I’m looking forward to the second half of this race.”
Froome endured a difficult start to the Vuelta when his Sky team coughed up 27 seconds to Quintana and Movistar in the opening team time trial. Curiously, after clawing back much of that time during the first week, Froome reaches the first rest day in more or less the same situation – he lies 5th overall, 28 seconds down on the new red jersey Quintana and 25 behind Contador.
“Obviously I’d prefer not to lose time but I’ll take time where I can get it as will any of the GC riders,” Froome said, acknowledging that Tuesday’s 36km time trial to Borja might provide him with a quick opportunity to respond. “It’s relatively short compared to time trials elsewhere but I enjoy time trialling and I’m hoping to make the most of it, for sure.”
At Valdelinares, however, it was Contador who made the most of the terrain on offer. The Spaniard began the Vuelta claiming that he was a mere outsider in what is his first race after fracturing his tibia at the Tour just over six weeks ago, but as of Sunday, it seems, his startling recovery is complete.
While on the one hand, Froome said that his own lack of explosiveness in the finale was to be expected given his pre-Vuelta lay-off, he insisted that he was not surprised by the intensity of Contador’s acceleration.
“I think we’ve come to see that Contador’s going extremely well. He’s got over his injuries pretty quickly and he’s going really well, as is Nairo Quintana and Rodriguez, the usual guys we suspected for the general classification,” Froome said. “There’s a huge fight here, it’s going to a big race all the way to the end, hence every second here and there is going to count, I think.”