Froome: La Zubia is the first big test at the Vuelta a España
Sky rider looks ahead to first category 1 finish
For every action, there seems to be an equal but opposite reaction at this Vuelta a España, at least as far as Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) are concerned.
On the road to San Fernando on Sunday, Contador's was an ostentatious presence at the head of the peloton in the finale. The following day, Froome announced his presence with a sharp jab on the uphill finish at Arcos de la Frontera. On stage 5, on another searing afternoon in Andalusia, Froome and Contador each issued implicit statements about their intentions for the remainder of this race.
Froome was first into the fray. As the peloton ambled behind lone leader Pim Ligthart towards the second intermediate sprint at Campillos, Froome clipped off the front in the company of teammate Christian Knees.
A similar attempt to gain bonus seconds in this way at the 2011 Vuelta ended in unintentional comedy when Froome jumped at the 20km to go banner rather than the sprint marker, but there was no such error this time and he coolly pocketed two bonus seconds.
Small change but it often seems that every little counts in this, of all races. "I just saw the opportunity," Froome shrugged after warming down outside the Sky bus after the stage.
Twenty kilometres after Froome's cameo, Alberto Contador sensed an opportunity of his own. As the peloton swung into a section of crosswind on the empty, exposed road between Teba and Ronda, the Spaniard sent his Tinkoff-Saxo team to the front of the peloton.
Their forcing quickly opened fissures in the peloton and brought back memories of the team's ambush on the road to Saint-Amand Montrand at last year's Tour de France. This time around, however, Froome was alert to the danger, and a phalanx of Sky riders kept him within sight of Contador throughout.
"This is the Vuelta, anything can happen. As you saw today, it was a slow day all day and then just a little bit of wind from the side sparked things off and racing began in the last 20-30km," Froome said. "I'm just happy to get through another day unscathed and still at the front. The big test will come tomorrow when we hit the mountains."
Stage 5 brings the peloton into the province of Granada and over the most rugged terrain of the opening week. The ascents of the Alto de Zafarraya and Alto de los Bermejales are followed by the category 1 climb above La Zubia, which ought to be the first major rendezvous of the Vuelta.
"We've got two quite big climbs tomorrow, that's going to be the first real test to see where everyone's at and it will be a good test for me too, to see where my legs are at," Froome said. "It's been a long period without racing for me and it feels like every day I'm getting into that race rhythm. I'm looking forward to tomorrow really."
The final haul of the Alto Cumbres Verdes is just 4.6 kilometres in length but boasts an average gradient of 7.8% and – perhaps most importantly – kicks up to almost 13% after a kilometre of climbing and only slightly levels out thereafter.
For both Froome and Contador, the Vuelta is their first race since abandoning the Tour de France through injury, and this is the first major examinations of their recoveries. Froome pointed to Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) as the men to beat on the climb.
"I think Purito Rodriguez looks like he's in really good form and I think he's going to be fighting hard for the victory, as is Quintana," he said. "Contador, I think he may be the same as me, having come back from injury, so he may not quite be there yet. I guess we'll find out tomorrow, though, he could definitely pull it out of the bag."
The principal favourites have largely matched each one other pedal stroke for pedal stroke through the early exchanges, but Thursday might just be the day when something starts to give.
"I feel alright but I definitely wouldn't say I'm at my best at the moment," Froome said. "Hopefully I'm going to get progressively better during the race but I guess time will tell."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.