Ranking the overall contenders at Vuelta a España can be a rather hazardous sort of an exercise in its early phases, at least when compared with the more regimented Tour de France. This late in the season, in a race where weaker teams and more fatigued riders tackle often unfamiliar terrain, the Vuelta carries few of the certainties of July.
Small wonder, then, that the general classification situation was decidedly nebulous for the opening week, but the picture sharpened into focus on the 12-kilometre climb of Lagos de Covadonga on Monday, the final act before the race breaks for its opening rest day. Eleven stages from the finish in Madrid, this Vuelta already seems destined to boil down to a straight duel between two men – Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Chris Froome (Team Sky).
Just seven kilometres from the summit of Lagos de Covadonga, however, it looked as though Quintana was about to be locked in hand-to-hand combat with a different foe for the next two weeks. With Froome seemingly faltering some 45 seconds behind, Quintana responded smartly to an acceleration from Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), and together the pair put daylight into all of the erstwhile contenders.
For a few kilometres, it appeared that Lagos de Covadonga was about to bear out the impressions of Saturday's haul up to La Camponera, where Quintana had been the strongest of the GC men and Contador the most determined. Yet by the time Quintana eased clear of Contador inside the final four kilometres, he was not so much ridding himself of the Spaniard as battling to ensure he held off a resurgent Froome.
Like the runner Paula Radcliffe, Froome's ungainly style of riding means that gauging his condition from a glance is nigh on impossible; only the watch is a reliable indicator. When his deficit to Quintana was edging out towards a minute just shy of midway up the climb, it seemed as though his race was run, but Froome then seemingly went into overdrive on the upper reaches, picking off Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange), Contador and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in succession en route to third on the stage, just 25 seconds down on Quintana. Not quite Pantani on Oropa, but a startling turnaround nonetheless.
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"I just rode the climb at the best pace I felt was the efficient way to get up there and according to how I thought the legs were feeling," said Froome, who, as ever, had his gaze locked on his powermeter throughout, even if he insisted that he was "riding more by feeling."
Quintana can scarcely be deemed to have faltered in the finale – he launched a rasping acceleration to drop Contador, after all, and then cruised past early attacker Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) to take stage honours – but he still coughed up a decent chunk of his buffer in the final kilometres.
What seemed the knock-out blow of this Vuelta midway up the climb was downgraded to merely a decisive one by day's end. Quintana wins the round on points and regains the red jersey of race leader, but Froome is still standing. "Froome remains the number one favourite, and I need three minutes prior to the time trial [on stage 19] to be sure I can win," Quintana said on Monday.
Just 58 seconds separate the two men on GC, and though Valverde lies in between them for the time being, it's difficult to shake off the sense that this Vuelta is shaping up to deliver the third instalment of the Quintana-Froome duel that never materialised at the Tour.
Little more than a month on from France, the playing field is rather different at this Vuelta. Movistar, not Sky, is the strongest team in the race, and Quintana seems more effervescent than he ever did in July. Yet on Monday's evidence, Froome seems to be bubbling under. It remains to be seen who will still be sparkling come week three.
Contador: New dawn fades
Like Germany at the World Cup or the New England Patriots in the NFL post-season, writing off Alberto Contador at a Grand Tour is often a risky venture, particularly given his rare gift for winning three-week races even when patently shy of his best, most notably at the 2012 Vuelta, when he was scarcely the third strongest man in the race.
After conceding early ground in Galicia and then crashing heavily on stage 7, Contador's Vuelta felt over before it had begun, but his stock suddenly rose with resilient showing on La Camponera on Saturday.
Movistar were setting the pace when Froome was distanced at the base of Lagos de Covadonga on Monday, but it was telling that it was Contador who launched the first telling attack seven kilometres from home, and he had no hesitation in following Quintana when he responded with change immediately afterwards.
Although his left knee was taped up in the colours of the Spanish flag, Contador matched Quintana pedal stroke for pedal stroke, seemingly believing that he could defy the odds at the Vuelta once again, a race where he has a 100 percent record of three victories from three participations.
That optimism may have been his undoing. "I had two options, either go after him or stay with Froome, and I chose badly," Contador admitted afterwards. Dropped by Quintana, caught and passed by Froome, Contador is now 5th overall, some 2:54 off the red jersey. It's a long way to Madrid, but even for Contador, this seems a Houdini act too far.
"I don't like using the word impossible, but I do find myself in a very difficult position," he said.
Twenty years ago, the stage to Lagos de Covadonga brought the curtain down on Miguel Indurain's career, and it seems that it has done the same for Contador's previous invincibility at the Vuelta. Though, Contador being Contador, he might remain a factor in deciding the destination of the spoils.
Racing for third place?
Valverde's second place in the overall standings means that he remains a very useful foil for Quintana, but the fact that this is his third Grand Tour of the season suggests that he ought to fade in the second half of the race. That pre-supposes, of course, that any sort of logic actually applies in a race that has thrown up overall winners as unlikely as Chris Horner and Juan José Cobo in recent years.
Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) battled well to limit his losses on Lagos de Covandonga, but cut a rather more tired figure than the rider who so impressed en route to second overall at the Giro d'Italia in May. Now 2:09 off Quintana, a place on the podium rather than the red jersey seems a more realistic target for Madrid. It will be fascinating, too, to see what his teammate Simon Yates – 8th at 3:06 – can manage from here.