Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) gambled high and lost in the Vuelta a España's toughest mountain stage, attacking on the penultimate climb of El Purche and opening up a gap of just over a minute on the race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky). But finally, his move fizzled out.
Contador's stage 15 attack came alongside the rider fast emerging as the top climber of this year's race, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team), and the Colombian proved to be an invaluable ally. The two then hoovered up Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) on the long ascent to Sierra Nevada in what appeared to be a formidable climbing quartet.
However, a counter-attack by Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) provoked an acceleration from Sky behind and then, above all, the relentless pace kept up by Mikel Nieve (Team Sky) at the head of the leader's group squeezed down the time margins.
Lopez, realizing that Sky were closing fast, shot away alone, leaving Contador to be reeled in by the leader's group. The Spaniard was dropped with a kilometre to go when Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) attacked. Contador ultimately lost 40 seconds on Froome, almost all the time he had clawed back with his spectacular attack at Antequera on Thursday.
Contador insisted afterwards that he had "no regrets about attacking, because this is my style of racing, I enjoy doing that. Just sitting there in the peloton is something I can't do, it's complicated for me."
A 22-kilometre breakaway, almost all of it uphill, was an impressive effort by the Spanish veteran, although the impression that it barely disturbed Team Sky was hard to avoid, too. For Contador, testing the water seems to be something he cannot avoid doing, saying "If you wanted to see what was going to happen behind [in the leader's group] you had to be brave, but Sky has a great team and the wind was extremely strong in places.
"Finally, I paid a price, it went on for too long. Superman was a good breakaway teammate but I was working harder at the start of the ascent and he wasn't working so much, maybe because of team orders, and so there were a lot of changes of pace. Bardet helped a bit, but it was hard for him."
Having dropped a spot to ninth overall, 3:59 down, Contador was notably vague about what his objectives were for the final week, saying simply: "I want to enjoy myself, just like I've been enjoying myself up to now. Let's take it day by day."
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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