Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) found himself unable to respond to Chris Froome's final attack at Cumbre del Sol, crossing the line of the Vuelta a España's ninth stage in sixth place behind the Team Sky rider. The Spanish veteran was able to match Froome on the Xorret de Catí on Saturday, but on the more uneven steep slopes on Sunday, the Briton's double acceleration saw him fade a little.
"I lacked the legs to fight for the victory but in the end I don't think I was that bad today," Contador said afterwards.
"There is still a lot that can happen, and we will see. Froome is obviously very strong, but we are not in Madrid yet."
Contador was asked if he had thought of a surprise attack in the style of Fuente De 2012, which demolished Joaquim Rodríguez chance of taking the racing and netted the Spaniard his second of three Vueltas, to try and topple Froome.
However, Contador argued that the chances of that kind of move verged on the impossible, given the strength of Froome's team compared to Rodriguez's more debilitated squad in 2012.
"You've got to stay confident, even when you lose a few seconds," the Spaniard said afterwards," but when Froome attacked that way, he was impossible to follow.
"I changed gear, got my strength back, but getting back onto terms with him was impossible. Let's keep going day by day and see how we can get on."
Contador said he did not rule out a Fuente De-style ambush, but admitted that Froome's squad made it much harder to envisage. "It's never totally impossible, but with a team like Sky it is very hard to break their domination. There's still a long way to go in the Vuelta, but we'll have to see how we get on on the day by day.
"This is a sport with major ups and downs, and the good thing is I don't feel like I'm racing under pressure."
As for the ascent to Cumbres del Sol, Contador said that the climb was tackled "much quicker the first time than the second, although by then, obviously you're beginning to feel a lack of strength. It was a really tricky final."
Contador has yet to break into the top 10 overall, and given his solid shows of climbing power, will doubtless be regretting his day of illness in Andorra more and more. "If I look back on the first part of the Vuelta, I would like to say that it was very good, but I can't because of that stage," he said.
It's also true that Froome is going from strength to strength while Contador is not gaining any ground on the Briton whatsoever. On top of that, there is the third week time trial, where Froome will likely open up even more time on his rivals. Contador may not go quietly into retirement, then, but it is looking increasingly difficult to see how he can successfully create an all-out GC challenge in his final Grand Tour and race as a professional.
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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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