Two days after it looked as if Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) might have only a symbolic impact on the Vuelta a España, Spain's Grand Tour star has bounced back with a vengeance on the first summit finish of the race.
Having lost over 2:30 on the first major mountain stage in Andorra, Contador suffered a stomach virus that briefly caused him some serious problems. As he put it afterwards, he felt unusually weak on the Andorra ascent of La Comella, and it looked as if he was out for the count.
However, as Trek-Segafredo directeur sportif Dirk De Mol told Cyclingnews on Tuesday morning, "It's not like Alberto lost 15 minutes or something," and on stage 5's tricky, steep uphill finish - not the kind of terrain where Contador is at his best - the Spaniard showed that he has not yet said his last word in the Vuelta.
Whereas in Andorra, even Sky rider Gianni Moscon's accelerations could sink the Spaniard, this time Contador was able to resist both Moscon's hard pulling and Chris Froome's attacks and even put in a brief dig of his own before the line on the three-kilometre ascent.
He finished in the same time as race leader Froome, Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac). Gaps on such a short, punchy climb were fairly minimal, but the Spanish veteran has regained nearly 30 seconds on riders like Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and almost a minute on Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale).
"I felt a whole lot better than on Monday and getting to be similar to how I felt before coming on the Vuelta," Contador said afterwards.
"But I don't want to read too much into this and start feeling euphoric. It was a short, very explosive uphill finish, and the long climbing tests will come in the second week of the race above all.
"But yes, I'm pleased and overwhelmed by how much affection the fans have shown me again on the roadside. It was like I was racing round in front of my block of flats at home. There was so much support and my thanks to everybody for that."
Talk quickly turned to how he could fight for the overall, but Contador was very cautious about that particular possibility.
"First it was a question of seeing how I felt, then we will work out what I am going to do from this point on, what options I really have," he said. "As I said, the GC is complicated, and I don't want to get too optimistic about this. The most important thing was to recover a bit, and the race will end up deciding how everybody is.
"Anybody seeing the TV images of the Andorra stage knows that wasn't my usual level, but cycling's like that. And regardless of what happens, I'm going to enjoy every kilometre of this Vuelta for sure."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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