Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) gained time on all of his rivals barring Chris Froome (Team Sky) at the Xorret de Cati, but the Spanish veteran seemed only partly satisfied with his performance on stage 8 of the Vuelta a España.
Sitting in one of the few shady areas at the finish on a day when temperatures soared into the high 30s, Contador explained how he had initially distanced Froome, but that he knew that a counter-attack by the Briton would be coming at some point.
Contador managed to claw back time on Froome after hitting a difficult patch when the Briton, having duly counter-attacked, accelerated hard. But by the summit, Contador was the only rider who could remain with the Sky rider.
However, while able to open up gaps ranging from 17 seconds on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) to nearly a minute on Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), Contador said he had not felt as strong as he had hoped.
"It's good we keep on confirming that the time I lost in Andorra was a glitch, but Froome was going really well," Contador said.
"He got back on, there was a moment while I could hold his pace, and I held him for quite a while. But then I needed to catch my breath, I eased back, and then I needed to change down three or four gears to get back on."
Albeit uneven rather than consistent, Contador's all-round performance on the Xorret de Catí showed that he can match Froome on the steepest climbs and is fast becoming the race leader's strongest rival. A repeat duel is therefore likely on Sunday, with a shorter, much more uneven final ascent, albeit with one steep ramp of 21 per cent.
"The signs are good, I'm going well, and it's a pity I lost that time in Andorra," Contador said in one final, defiant comment. "But I will have to look at the video of how they tackled that climb in 2015.
"If there's a chance of a stage win, I'd certainly like to take it."
On the plus side for Contador, thanks to Xorret to stage 8 he's gained another seven places overall, moving him up to 17th, and all the signs are that the process of moving up through the GC will continue on Sunday. Toppling Froome may well prove a much trickier objective but as we saw again on Saturday, Contador is hardly alone in facing that challenge.
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