Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) showed once again that he is determined to leave the sport on as high a note as possible the Spaniard bolted away from the peloton on a hilly run-in to Gijon in stage 19 of the Vuelta a Espana.
Staying away to the finish in Gijon looked like mission impossible. But the impact of Contador's move, on the steepest segments of the third category Alto de San Martin de Huerces, 15 kilometres from the finish, was strengthened by having two teammates, Edward Theuns and Jarlinson Pantano, in the early break.
Already a great help to Contador on the final part of the stage to Antequera where he had dropped the pack on the last climb, Theuns once again waited to pace Contador as far up the road as possible. But after opening a gap of 45 seconds on the tricky downhill and then the flatter approach to Gijon, with two kilometres to go, a Sky-led peloton had reeled Contador in.
"Today was a really difficult finish to reach ahead of the bunch, but we had Jarlinson to go for the stage win, and Edward [Theuns] to help me," Contador said afterward.
"There was a really strong headwind, so I put on a 55 chainring for the drop down, when we saw they were pulling me back, we put Edward on the front to pull for as long as possible and I tried to conserve some energy for tomorrow."
"It was a pity," Theuns added, "but there was a lot of headwind in the final downhill, we still had to push a lot and that's where I think the guys behind had a bit of an advantage."
Contador's display of strength confirmed an upward trend in his form that started with a fifth place in Logroño's time trial, then continued with his second place at los Machucos and his ability both to attack on the second category Collada de la Hoz and stay in touch with Chris Froome (Team Sky) on the ascent to Santo Toribio on Thursday. And as Contador told reporters at the line in Gijon, even though he doesn't think he can now win the Vuelta, he is finishing the race in better shape than when he began.
"Maybe it's because I've got a different kind of attitude towards this race, but I feel like I'm ending this Vuelta stronger than I ever did. So I want to enjoy the two days I have left of racing here," he said.
Contador was not surprised, he said, that Sky had wanted to reel him in and his brief clasp of hands with Chris Froome as the peloton did so did not suggest that he was particularly upset by it. "They've learned from other years, they're trying to keep me under control."
But judging by the relentless attacking spirit Contador has shown, the question of how easy it is to keep a Contador on a tight leash is one that will trouble the British team and his other rivals right up to the last key day in the Vuelta.
Rain is predicted for Saturday, adding another level of difficulty and danger the final summit finish of Contador's career. Asked if he thinks he can still win the Vuelta, Contador admitted that "my overall situation doesn't allow it, but I would like to take a stage victory if I can." His last chance will come on the Angliru, then, where he won back in 2008.
"It would be really nice if he finishes on the podium, too, you can see he's enjoying racing, " Theuns added. "If it all works out, then so much the better."
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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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