When Movistar's Nairo Quintana launched the first attack on Jebel Hafeet on the Abu Dhabi Tour's queen stage, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) didn't waste a split second getting up to his wheel. And that's where he would remain for the entirety of the ascent, tracking the Colombian closely every time he accelerated and slowing down every time he eased up.
Contador was a late addition to the Trek-Segafredo line-up for the four-day Middle Eastern race – now a WorldTour affair – and he duly set aside his own hopes of winning the stage and the overall to work for Bauke Mollema, who'd committed his name to the start list weeks ago.
"Today we played the card of Bauke, which was good for us, and it was down to me to control the race. I knew that Nairo was the most dangerous rider, and I knew that if I managed to control things for Bauke, it would be best way for us to make an impact," Contador told Cyclingnews and other reporters beyond the finish line on Jebel Hafeet.
Mollema attacked just over three kilometres from the line, and he made a considerable impact, but by then Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) had already carved out a sizeable advantage out front and he was never able to reel them back in.
"It was to control the race behind," Contador added. "There were lots of strong guys there and that was the sensible thing to do. Also, back in the group there was no one team that was organised and doing the pulling. When Bauke went off the front, for us it was a good situation, and I dedicated myself to controlling the group behind."
It was something of a culture shock for Contador, who won the Tour de France the second time he raced it as a 24-year-old, and has since had little experience of working for others – or of riding in the wheels for that matter.
"I'm often the most offensive rider, the one who launches the attacks, but today it was the opposite role for me," he said.
"It's a role that I like, partly because I'm not so accustomed to doing it. But also I like it because my teammates then have more options. We have multiple cards in the team and today we played them."
It was telling that Contador twice referred to his outing here in Abu Dhabi as 'training'.
The 34-year old had an encouraging start to the season at the Ruta del Sol last week, where he regularly looked to ignite the race and ended up finishing in second place by just a solitary second to Movistar's Alejandro Valverde. The first major objective of his campaign comes at Paris-Nice early next month, and the late trip to Abu Dhabi was more a case of racing to train rather than racing to win.
"At the end of the day, I decided to come to this race at the last minute. When we decided to come here it was to gather speed. I had a training camp lined up between Andalucia and Paris Nice, but we swapped it for this race to get the speed in the legs. And that's what we've done," said Contador.
"The truth is the sensations were good. Coming almost straight from Ruta, with the travel and the time changes, I wasn't sure how it was going to go, but I've felt very good."
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