The sight of Contador sinking like a stone in Andorra, losing over two and a half minutes, was one which even prompted rumours that he might abandon after such a difficult first mountain test. But the Spaniard has instead bounced back, putting on a defiant showing on Wednesday's ascent to Santa Lucia, and again in the sierras of Valencia on Thursday.
On Saturday and Sunday's steepest final climbs of all, Contador was clearly on the defensive compared to race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), but in 2016, he did not show strongly on these types of ascent either. The true extent of Contador's challenge at this Vuelta will thus only become clear on the tougher ascents like Wednesday's to Calar Alto.
"I think you can divide it into two clear halves already for me," Contador said on Monday's rest day. "The first part [Andorra] had very little to do with how I felt before the race when I was training in Madrid and didn't form part of my plans at all.
"In the second part [after Andorra], I've been going very, very well. These really steep climbs have never favoured me and that makes me optimistic. I'm in good shape and we'll see what we can do."
Contador later revealed that his power output has been higher than at the Tour, where he placed 9th overall. Asked if he would have to choose between targeting a podium and stage wins, Contador said he wanted "both."
"I'll let the race go by, day by day and I'm not ruling out anything," Contador said. "To tell the truth, I'm pleased because perhaps a lot of people thought I came to the Vuelta this year just to ride round and say goodbye, but I'm showing them that's not the case and that I've trained hard to race it like a professional. Let's see how far that gets me."
Contador is currently 13th overall, 3:32 behind Froome, and he recognises the magnitude of the task before him. "The podium is very complicated, there are a lot of riders ahead of me. But on the other hand, there's almost all of the Vuelta left to go to try to pull time back."
Like all the other climbers, a large part of Contador's hopes now centre on the longer, set-piece mountain ascents of the second week. With a long time trial in Logroño opening up the final third of the race, waiting until then would arguably set the GC in stone and the overall battle could well mutate into whoever wants to stand next to Chris Froome (Team Sky) on the podium in Madrid.
"In theory, these longer ascents from here on in suit me the best," Contador said. "But we'll have to see what Sky's strategy is. If they go flat out, it would suit me, because it would help create bigger time gaps. On the other hand, if they don't do that, it won't be so good."
Contador acknowledged that his Trek-Segafredo team is "maybe not strong as I'd like it to be" and he explained that he might have to mould his strategy to those of his rivals. He also re-emphasised his frustration at the lack of collaboration among the GC contenders when he attacked on the road to Sagunto on stage 6. "If there's only one rider trying, it's not that easy against a team as powerful as Sky," Contador said.
Based on the time-honoured principle of the working alliance in cycling, Contador said he did not completely rule out the idea of forming a pincer movement with Froome on GC if in exchange he gained places on the podium.
"Obviously Froome has shown that he's the strongest and the most consistent rider here, as well as having the most powerful team. You can't rule out collaborating, because if at the end of the day we both get something out of it, then why not?" Contador said.
As for the overall victory, Contador pointed out that "first of all I'd have to beat all the riders ahead of me, and there's a lot of them." He singled out Tejay van Garderen (BMC) as the best time triallist and thus the most dangerous.
"It's true that every day so far, I've managed to gain time on my rivals, bar Froome – with the exception of Sunday. And the time trial should be advantageous against the majority of them as well," Contador said.
"So at the moment it's all about being as close as possible to Froome on GC. From then on, anything could happen, there are a thousand things that can happen that you can't control - a cold, a bad day, or it could get really rainy in the last week in Asturias, you're not feeling great and you lose loads of time. Until you reach Madrid, you never can tell what's going to happen. Let's see if I can recover time, little by little, and then in Madrid we'll see what kind of position that lets me end up taking."
As for the future, Contador revealed that he was no longer disturbed by the idea that he would no longer be a pro once the dust settles on the final podium on La Castellana in Madrid a week on Sunday. He also singled out a young rider who might fly the flag for Spanish stage racing hopes in the future.
"Time will tell, but to be honest and from what I've seen so far, I'd have to say Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors)," Contador said. But for now at the Vuelta, for one final time, Spanish GC hopes are exclusively pinned on el Pistolero de Pinto, Contador himself.
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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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