Be it in triumph or misfortune, Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) have been seemingly inseparable all season and the sequence continued on the Vuelta a España’s first summit finish above La Zubia on Thursday afternoon.
The stiff climb of the Alto Cumbres Verdes extends inexorably upwards for four kilometres, offering no shelter and no hiding place for the overall contenders. As expected, the first shake-up of the general classification ensued, but Froome and Contador – once again – matched one another pedal stroke for pedal stroke all the way to the top.
Prior to this Vuelta, Froome and Contador had not raced since prematurely crashing out of the Tour de France, but neither man showed any ill-effects from their extended lay-offs as they reacted to the accelerations of Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde in the final kilometre.
The stage honours fell to Valverde, a remarkable feat considering that he had spent much of the climb setting the pace on the front in support of his Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana, but Froome and Contador were the only riders to match the Spaniard when he kicked in the final 200 metres.
On cresting the summit, Froome declared himself pleased with his showing in what was the first true assessment of the overall contenders’ condition after five days of phony war in the broiling heat of Andalusia.
“I’m happy, I’m happy that I didn’t lose any more time today,” Froome said. “For myself it’s been a long time without intense racing and I’m really happy with that. I’ve got to thank my team, they did a fantastic job positioning me today and I owe being up there today.”
Froome was able to rely on the support of teammate Mikel Nieve – who eventually finished 9th, at 32 seconds – on the steepest section of the climb, although he acknowledged that in Valverde and Quintana, Movistar have the strongest pairing in the race.
Valverde’s win has propelled him back into the red jersey, 15 seconds clear of Quintana. Contador lies third at 18 seconds, while Froome has moved up to fourth, just a further four seconds behind.
“I think Movistar have shown that they’re the team to beat,” said Froome. “Rodriguez was very strong and as for Contador, you can see that he’s just fine after his injuries.”
Quintana had appeared the most comfortable of the dwindling leading group as they passed beneath the red kite, but once the accelerations started in earnest inside the final 700 metres, he was suddenly struggling to remain on terms. The Colombian crossed the line in 5th place, 12 seconds back, but Froome was wary of making any firm judgements on his condition.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure he’ll be back in the bigger climbs. This was only four kilometres,” Froome said, before soft-pedalling back down the climb towards anti-doping.
Sky manager Dave Brailsford watched the finale of the stage aboard the team bus at the base of the climb and he, too, was quietly pleased with what he had seen from his leader.
“He didn't know where he was at, a bit like Contador and the other guys, so today will have given him a lot of confidence,” Brailsford said. “The idea was to build into the race, rather than coming in a hundred percent. He'll be very happy today.”