Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) took an optimistic view of his performance on the opening stage of the Ruta del Sol, focusing not on his sixth place finish - last out of the leading group behind Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), but on his series of attacks on the Alto de Monachil.
Contador had expressed some caution before the race start, saying that with no sprint or transition stages to warm up with, it would be difficult to judge how well he could perform on such a tough opening round. However, both Trek-Segafredo and their leader made his intentions clear from the gun on stage 1 and the long trek up from the Costa del Sol and across the Sierras of Andalucia.
Trek-Segafredo put riders on the front to pull back the seven-rider break of the day, with Haimar Zubeldia launching Contador on the lower slopes of the Alto de Monachil. Contador, clearly champing at the bit, launched four separate attacks on the ascent.
The first attack could have been the most profitable, had he and Valverde agreed to collaborate once the Movistar rider bridged across. Instead, after a lengthy battle on the grindingly steep middle section of the category 1 climb, the false flat and last little rise to the summit, and then the long descent into Granada, six riders emerged with a slight lead.
Contador and Valverde were joined by Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Diego Rosa and Wout Poels (Sky) to battle for the stage win on the long boulevard next to Granada's River Genil. Valverde, despite being the most closely marked, surged forwards for his 99th career victory, with Contador sixth.
"I have to be pleased with what I did today," Contador told reporters at the finish. "It was a very hard start to the year, and I managed to put in several attacks. The team worked very well, and we were brave.
"But nobody would help me turn out a steadier pace to the moves that were happening on the last climb, and we couldn't make much of a difference."
Contador expressed mild dissatisfaction with how Valverde had failed to collaborate, saying, "He had to try to play his own cards. I told him we should work together, but he did not consider that as an option. If we had done so, we could have stayed a bit calmer, and then fought out the race between us. But everybody has their own strategy."
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Indeed, after such a tough stage there are still at least 10 candidates for the overall win. Four riders finished five seconds behind the six-man Valverde group: Warren Barguil (Sunweb), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Mikel Landa (Sky) and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac). Aside from Pieter Weening (Roompot) at 24 seconds, the rest are more than half a minute down already.
Contador, second place and a stage winner in the 2015 Ruta del Sol, was cautious about what could happen from here on in. "I think tomorrow's final climb - a 5.4 kilometre category 1 ascent at Mancha Real - is much harder on paper than in reality," he observed, which would logically mean the time trial on Friday will be the decisive point of the race.
What was also noticeable was how Contador has now started to use a descending position widely credited to Chris Froome (Team Sky) in the 2017 Tour, hunching his body over the top tube on the descent to try and ensure faster drop back into Granada. "Whatever you do, you have keep on innovating," Contador concluded with a smile.
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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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