Sitting at the top steps of the Trek-Segafredo team bus just minutes after losing the Ruta del Sol lead to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by a scant second, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) recognised that even with such a narrow margin his chances of winning the race overall are now more than slim.
Contador has been the most dynamic of all the GC racers in this year’s Ruta: his four attacks on stage one on the Alto de Monachil climb split the field apart, and his punchy charge away on stage two in Mancha Real climb netted him the lead. On stage 3, in the time trial, he went from the gun again, moving out the saddle on the opening climb.
Yet recently Contador’s track record has its fair share of narrow defeats, too - in the 2015 Ruta del Sol, he was second, just two seconds down on Chris Froome (Team Sky). In last year’s Paris-Nice, he lost by four seconds to Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) then missed out on the Volta a Catalunya by seven seconds to Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
And this time round, as he crossed the line just six seconds down on Valverde, it looks as if - with two flattish stages remaining - Contador faces an even narrower defeat overall, as the Movistar rider took over the lead again by just one second. Although Sunday’s stage is a lumpier one, the opportunities to recoup those losses are now all but non-existent and the most probable outcome is that come Sunday, Valverde will have taken his fifth Ruta del Sol win.
“I didn’t feel so bad, I was firing strongly but we’ve just started the season and I’m maybe lacking that last bit of sparkle you need to get the win,” Contador, third on the stage said.
“It all came down to a few seconds difference, they ended up being in Alejandro’s favour, not mine, and I have to congratulate him.”
It later emerged that Contador had lost a little time in the early part of the race against the clock after two loose dogs ran into the street just ahead of him. The offending canines were small ones, apparently, but nonetheless Contador had to swerve and slow in order to miss them. Whether the stray dogs indirectly cost him the overall lead is anyone’s guess, but it can’t have helped.
Contador explained that he is going better than expected at this time of year, “because if I’m honest, I came to this race to polish my form, because I wasn’t too convinced about the Ruta’s race route this year, I’d have liked the last stages to be the hardest, not the first. So in that sense, I’m very pleased with how I’m going.
“My first real objective is Paris-Nice, but you end up giving the maximum you can, and it’s a pity that we’ve just got flatter stages now, and there are no more days in the mountains for me to try to pull back time. Dislodging Valverde from the lead in the Ruta del Sol, he argued, “is going to be very complicated.”
As for after the Ruta, it was announced on Friday he will now take part in Abu Dhabi. “As I’m lacking that little bit of edge that often makes the slight difference between victory and defeat, we’ll see if I can pick things up a little bit for Paris-Nice."