Alberto Contador's battle for a fourth Vuelta a España victory may be over before it had properly begun after the Trek-Segafredo rider lost well over two minutes and plummeted out of contention even before Chris Froome had put in his final attack on stage 3.
Contador's woes began even earlier when key climbing team-mate Jarlinson Pantano was dropped on the Rabassa. But when Sky's Gianni Moscon blasted away at the foot of the Cornella, it was Spain's top contender who instantly hit major trouble.
Barely able even to follow the gentler pace set by team-mate Peter Stetina, by the finish, Contador had lost over 2:33. This time, and unlike in the Tour de France, there have been no crashes or mechanicals to explain the drop in race condition: Contador simply looked as if he was having a singularly bad day and he confirmed that at the finish.
"It's been a day when I felt really, really rough, right from the moment we started to climb the Rabassa," Contador said. "I could tell it was going to be a bad one, I didn't know what was happening, all I knew was that I just felt very, very weak. So I told Peter that I had decided to take things as calmly as I possibly could and try to save the day as well as possible.
"Let's hope it's just one bad day, a result of the lack of racing, maybe. But the most important thing is to try and find out why I felt so weak. I haven't felt like that for a very long time." The Vuelta is Contador's first race since the Tour de France, and it's also the first time he's raced the Vuelta having completed a Tour in July.
Prior to taking any particular course of action like start to focus on stage wins, Contador said his top priority was to find out what was behind his really bad day. Interestingly, he neatly sidestepped a question about Froome and Sky's collectively strong performance to say simply that "it's a major blow, because I'm here to fight for the win.
"It's also true, that this is the Vuelta that I can enjoy the most. But I'll keep on trying to fight back and even if I'm not in the kind of condition I'd like to be, I'm going to go on enjoying it."
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