Chris Froome's advantage at the top of the Vuelta a España standings widened yet again on the Xorret de Cati as the Team Sky leader blasted away from the pack in the final kilometre of the ultra-steep Spanish climb.
Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), the rider who's been best able to match Froome so far on the two climbing stages, was unable to maintain the pace on stage 8, crossing the finish line 17 seconds back. As a result Chaves remains in second overall but a time gap that was barely in double figures has now stretched to almost triple its previous size.
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) has now taken over as the rider best able to handle Froome's pace, as he did on Wednesday's summit finish of Santa Lucia and again on the Xorret de Cati. There was also an intriguing but ultimately ineffective long-distance attack by Contador in the sierras of Valencia on Thursday that Froome, again, could match. As the rest of the GC contenders lose time, and with Contador at over three minutes, Froome recognised there could come a point when he and the Spanish veteran might join forces.
"It's in both of our interests to work together," Froome said after stage 8. "Today he didn't want to work with me, the other day I didn't want to work with him. There might be some situations where we can work together."
Froome recognised that Contador is not simply taking part in his final Grand Tour to make up the numbers, or as he put it a shade wryly. "I definitely get the sense he's not here to ride around Spain giving selfies and signing autographs.
"He's here to try and win. There were a tough first few days and I imagine he will keep putting me under pressure." It's not just direct attacks that Contador can use to cause Froome problems, as the Briton pointed out, too. There are ambushes like the one engineered on last year's stage to Formigal. "I have to be really attentive to be sure that something like last year doesn't happen again."
Froome's strategy on each of the short punchy summit finishes is the same and in a race that can be won and lost by seconds – such as in 2011, when he lost it by 13 seconds to Juan José Cobo – he needs to carve out a lead little-by-little.
"So far we've only had only climbs that are 3, 4 kilometres long, but they've been very decisive in the past. They've produced some big time gaps. For me, personally, I might as well take advantage of them where I can, and keep chipping away," Froome said.
"I've got nothing to prove, I'm here to try and win the race, and doing what I'm doing gives me the best chance overall. I'm not afraid of the third week. It's not as if I'm worried my form is going to run out. I just feel good, so why not race on whilst I feel good.
"This is professional cycling. We've seen in the past how quickly things change, so I'll take time and keep pushing on."
Froome, yet again, thanked his teammates, saying that it could well have been easier to give the jersey away to a non-GC threat like Nelson Oliveira (Movistar). If he remained in red, he said, it was thanks to his teammates like Ian Stannard, David López and Christian Knees.
But there is no doubt that if Froome is on top of the GC rankings and has remained there in a very tough first week, it’s for a reason. That this is his strongest start to the Vuelta cannot be doubted and at the moment the race remains his to lose.
"Each day, either one rival or another loses time," former Tour winner Pedro Delgado, now commenting for Spanish TV, said afterwards.
"It's impressive how Froome keeps his cool when his rivals attack, lets them get to a certain distance, then closes them down."
Froome is not one to make gung-ho, sweeping statements outlining how strong he's feeling even when he's in a dominating position but the Sky rider used his leader's press confidence on Friday to deliver a particularly confident sounding global analysis of how his season has gone so far, and putting the Vuelta into that context.
"It's definitely been an extremely hard start to the Vuelta. For me personally I'm happy to be in the position I'm in. It's the first time I've done an altitude training camp before the Vuelta and I'm glad we did that, it's beginning to pay off," Froome said.
"The way I structured the season with my coach Tim Kerrison, not necessarily to be in my best form until just before the Tour de France, that's now helping me a lot."
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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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