The doubts surrounding Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and whether he had recovered from his Tour de France injuries for this year’s Vuelta a España began to lift on Thursday as the Spaniard seized a third place finish on the race’s first summit finish.
The double Vuelta winner never placed any attacks, but as Valverde’s constant pace on the climb wore out rider after rider, Contador never looked to be in difficulty. For a rider who had crashed out of the Tour with a broken tibia and whose decision to race the Vuelta came barely 10 days before the start in Jerez de la Frontera, that in itself was a significant moral victory.
Contador is now in third place overall, 18 seconds down on new race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and just three behind Nairo Quintana. A considerable boost to his confidence, therefore, as Contador confirmed that he can be numbered among the top favourites.
Contador rarely allows his emotions to dominate his post-stage reactions, and although he spoke with his usual measured tones to the mass of reporters at the finish, he admitted that he had “never expected to do so well.”
“I never could imagine that I would be doing so well in a summit finish, above all in the sixth stage and without feeling absolutely great. I’m very happy,” he said.
“It was a big surprise. I looked back and there were only eight riders, they [Valverde and Movistar] piled on the pressure and I could respond to that.”
Tactically, Contador admitted he had made a slight error at the finish. “I focused too much on the finish banner, rather than waiting and going for second place on the stage, but in any case, it was hard to do better. We have to congratulate Valverde: he won this one hands down.”
The differences are beginning to be broaden overall, and Contador pointed out that the high temperatures in Andalusia are exacting a toll. “On a day of such extreme heat, some people suffer more than others. I’m very satisfied but now I have to get some rest.”
Given the extent of his Tour injuries, Contador preached caution, saying his attitude to the race would not change: “It’s still a question of taking this on the day by day.”
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.