Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) moved onto the provisional GC podium on Friday's toughest stage of the Volta a Catalunya, but the Spanish stage race specialist admitted he did not have his best day and that fighting for overall victory is looking increasingly complicated.
On paper, Contador and Froome could yet put Valverde under pressure on Saturday's stage which has nearly 4,000 metres of climbing before Sunday's short and tricky circuit stage around the Montjuic park. But an almost 30km-long descent from the final first category climb combined with Valverde's stunning mountain form will make it all but impossible to challenge the current leader. On top of that, Valverde's teammate Marc Soler is lying in fourth overall, meaning Movistar have a plan 'B'.
"The route is what it is, and there are still two stages left," Contador argued after Friday's defeat. "You have to adapt to them." However, the stage 2 team time trial, where Trek-Segafredo finished fourth and lost significant time to BMC, Sky and Movistar has left Contador playing catch-up since Tuesday. On Friday, Contador's best chance to move back into the game, Valverde proved the stronger. On top of that, Froome is now lying second overall with Contador third.
"It was a relatively straightforward stage, because it only really had the last climb as a major challenge, although that was very tough," Contador said.
"I didn't feel too bad, but my legs felt a bit stiff and I was lacking that last little plus-point you need to fight for the victory. That little spark was missing."
Contador accelerated hard with two kilometres to go, and although Valverde, Froome and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) were able to follow, when Valverde's teammate Marc Soler bridged across to the lead group, the Trek-Segafredo rider was left looking isolated.
"My rivals have worked well, and Movistar did a great job," Contador said. He already lost the Ruta del Sol to Valverde earlier this year by one second. "I had to watch Marc Soler, and that meant I couldn't watch Alejandro as closely as I'd have liked."
Having taken second in the Ruta and second in Paris-Nice, Contador seems all but certain to at least take home a third place on GC in the Volta a Catalunya if - as seems the most likely outcome - there are now no further big changes on the overall. And a revenge match in the Vuelta al País Vasco is just around the corner.