As he soaked up the applause on the final podium of the Ruta del Sol on Sunday, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) was left reflecting on the painfully narrow margin that lay between defeat and victory for him in this year's race.
Losing by the absolute minimum, just one second down on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), cannot have been an easy blow to take for the Madrileno, particularly when Contador had attempted to wrench the five-day Andalucian race in his favour from the word go.
His attack on the climb from Monachil on stage 1 on repeated occasions blew the Ruta apart and made it clear he was one of the strongest riders, if not the strongest, in the race. Going for it again on the stage to Mancha Real and moving into the race lead, it seemed as if Contador could be the rider who finally ended Alejandro Valverde's run of success in the Ruta.
However, the Trek-Segafredo rider's spell in the overall lead after stage 2 proved to be a very brief one as Valverde - who played a much more coldly calculated game throughout - bounced back in the stage 3 time trial in Lucena to take the top spot again by one second. As for the last two days of the race, Contador repeatedly said, "there just isn't the terrain to go on attacking." That single second in favour of Valverde, particularly in a race with no time bonuses, proved to be sufficient.
Stage 5's lumpy finale through the hinterland of the province of Malaga represented Contador's last opportunity to pull off mission impossible, but Movistar's grip on the main peloton, combined with some unusually foul weather, made it impossible for Contador to go into attack mode.
Instead, as the peloton ground through the rain and the wind to the finish in Coin, Contador settled for the same result he took in the Ruta two years ago - second overall. On this occasion, the margin of defeat shrank from two seconds against Chris Froome (Sky) in 2015 to one second against Valverde on Sunday.
"It was very hard to take back the time, and on top of that the weather was bad, and the roads were not great at all," Contador said. "It was very complicated, very windy in the first part of the stage."
Contador pointed out, that he did not want to take any risks. "I just have to think that the season has only just started and that I've done a lot of good training. If I fell off now, it could all go up in smoke."
Contador will now head for the Abu Dhabi Tour with some positive lessons from the Ruta. "I've had a very good race in many ways, I've been up there in the action from the first stage onwards. At the end of the day, it's disappointing not to have won. But now I have to head Abu Dhabi and then it's Paris-Nice, which is where I really want to be competitive."
Contador rounded off his brief press conference by congratulating Valverde on taking his 100th win, even if it was at his expense. "He's an amazing rider, able to win in all sorts of terrain, and that's something very impressive," he concluded.
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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