Alberto Contador was the first rider to respond when Richie Porte (BMC Racing) attacked the steepest part of the final climb on stage 3 of the Tour de France in Longwy, and the Trek-Segafredo leader latched onto the Australian's wheel before eventually fading back into the main bunch to finish 18th without making up any of the 54 second deficit he has to the yellow jersey of Team Sky's Geraint Thomas.
Bouncing out of the saddle in his own distinctive style it looked for the briefest of moments as though a stage designed for the Peter Sagans and Greg Van Avermaets of this world would be decided by the overall contenders. Porte's intent was clear and as he rose out of the saddle Contador looked to match the Australian as the sprinters and remaining GC men sat a few meters back.
However, when Contador began to drift back it looked as though he was struggling. Porte pressed on and opened a gap before eventually being swallowed up by the rest of the field – his opportunistic move snuffed out in the headwind as the road flattened. There would be no denying Peter Sagan.
"Today was a hard day with that final," Contador told Cyclingnews as he spun the lactic acid from his legs. "In the last 60 kilometres there was lots of fighting but for me, it was good because the team was incredible with John Degenkolb and Koen de Kort on the flat and then with the climbers who helped me, Pantano and Mollema. That was the most important thing – that the team all worked in the same direction.
"Okay, I lost some positions in the end but in the first tough kilometre I passed to the front. Then when I was there Richie attacked in front of me. At the first moment I decided to go with him, but then in the final the wind was strong and I decided to stay back and be calmer. I think that was the right decision because in the end the guys with more power went for it in the sprint. If I had attacked then maybe I wouldn't have followed, but overall it was a good day because there was no crash, no problem, and that was more important. We didn't want to lose any time to rivals."
Only time will tell whether Contador's decision was based on the fact that he predicted the bunch would come back to him and Porte or because he didn't have the legs to follow the Australian, but the Trek leader was asked if he was on the limit when Porte accelerated.
"When Richie attacked, of course, we were going very fast and also I came from the middle of the pack to the front in less than half a kilometre. He attacked hard and I think I could follow him, but if I had gone with him then I'm not sure that I could follow the others if we are caught. That's why I waited."
A more accurate reflection of Contador's form will come on stage 5, when the race hits the first true mountain summit of 2017 at La Planche de Belles Filles. On those slopes, Contador will have no choice but to follow if and when the attacks begin.
"In these three days I've felt good. Stage 5 is going to be completely different," he admitted.
"It's one hard climb that will be longer. What I don't know is who will take responsibility of controlling the peloton on the climb. We will follow and wait for the best moment for us. At the moment there's many riders in front of me, but I'll see what I can do."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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