A defiant Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) launched a blistering series of attacks on Thursday's sixth stage of the Vuelta a España through the sierras of Valencia, putting pressure on all the GC contenders and leaving his bad day in Andorra behind him with a vengeance.
Despite being more than three minutes down on race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), Contador was adamant that he could still have some kind of impact on the overall, especially on such a tough stage, with temperatures in the mid-30s, an average speed of 42.7 kilometres an hour and nearly 2,500 metres of vertical climbing.
"Ask any rider and they'll tell you it was an exceptionally hard day, without a single moment to catch your breath," Contador said afterwards. "I enjoyed it. I know the area well from training and I had a good time."
Contador's attacks consisted of a repeated series of accelerations on the steepest section on the Puerto del Garbi some 35 kilometres from the finish. The Grand Tour champion owns a house in the area and comes here often to train in winter, and so was familiar with the terrain.
His efforts shattered the group of favourites, leaving behind David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors), Esteban Chaves, Adam and Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Fabio Aru (Astana), thanks in part to some vicious pace from his Trek-Segafredo teammate, Jarlinson Pantano, who had been in the break of the day.
But after a crash from Van Garderen disrupted the group, Contador and Froome were left with just Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates), a remnant from the breakaway, with more than 30 kilometres of headwind racing to go. On the twisting, technical descent, a larger group of GC riders including Aru, Adam Yates, Chaves, Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing) and Nibali bridged across to form a mini-peloton of 17 main contenders.
Contador's performance represented a huge turnaround after his near-disastrous performance in Andorra on Monday, where he sank like a stone as soon as Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) blasted away on the Comella second-category climb. His strategy of shaking the GC tree on the Garbi as hard as possible to see who would fall off the branches only worked up to a point, however.
"There was a strong headwind today and I said to myself it was going to be difficult to get away. But if I'd managed to get a few riders with me, it could have been interesting," Contador reflected afterwards.
Contador said afterwards that he regretted that there had been less collaboration in the front group to try and open up some bigger gaps.
In a sign of how seriously Froome takes Contador as a potential GC threat, despite his being a long way back, the Briton tracked down every single move by the Spaniard on the Garbi. But it is also indicative of Contador's rapidly rising strength that he was able to isolate Froome from his teammates, in marked contrast to the previous two mountainous stages, where Froome's team have dominated their rivals.
"It was an opportunity to do a lot of damage in the GC and get rid of some important people. I thought there'd be more collaboration from the other teams, squads who had two or three riders there in that front group who could have dropped some of their rivals. Maybe, later on, they're going to regret having lost this opportunity.
"Days like this often make more of a difference than ones as hard as the Angliru. It wouldn't have cost anything to take turns on the front and open up a bigger gap on the riders behind. But each team has their own way of racing and I've enjoyed myself, it's been a good day."
Contador did not single out Froome as failing to take advantage of the situation of being in a small group ahead of the rest of the teams, simply saying that with collaboration from the race leader, it would have taken longer for the chasing rivals to catch them. However, Contador also conceded that more riders would have been needed for their smaller move to stay away. "It was when that second group came across, that was when we could have worked to drop our rivals."
Contador did tip Chaves and Froome as the two of the very strongest overall contenders "amongst a lot of other names, and recognised that while he was a long way back overall, he did not rule out battling to improve on that, saying, "I'm going to have to fight for a stage win, and overall, I want to get as high up on GC as I possibly can."
His other priority, that of attempting to provide as much drama as possible to the GC battle come what may, appears to be something Contador and his fans can take for granted.
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