Race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) has refused to rule Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) out of the battle for overall victory at the Vuelta a España after the Spaniard subjected the Briton and the rest of the GC contenders to a series of attacks in the sierras of Valencia.
Froome finished eighth on the stage, having personally chased down Contador's moves and then sticking with the Spaniard and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) over the summit of the stage's last climb.
Van Garderen crashed twice and punctured, losing a little time at the finish, but Froome stuck with Contador. The duo was then joined by a larger group of chasers, including Froome's Sky teammate Wout Poels and most of the GC contenders.
With van Garderen losing a little time, Froome increased his overall advantage to second place, from 10 seconds on the American to 11 seconds on Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott).
However, almost all of the questions later focused on Contador's series of attacks and his potential to inflict greater damage later on in the race. Asked if he considered whether Contador could win overall, despite being three minutes back, Froome did not rule it out, saying instead, "We're still two weeks away from Madrid, so anything can still happen."
He had, he said, anticipated some kind of GC action on such a tough stage, featuring over 2,000 metres of vertical climbing and with a brutally difficult second-category climb in the final hour of racing.
"It was such a tough stage, I thought a GC rider would attack and Alberto was very impressive today," he said. "He did go very deep and very hard, and that forced the rest of us to go hard as well."
Froome did not see van Garderen crash, although he knew that somebody had fallen at that point in the race.
"I heard somebody crashing right next to me," Froome said. "It's a reminder that even if you ride right at the front things can happen out of the blue. That's part of Grand Tour racing, there's a certain element of luck involved and you have to hope that the luck plays out in your favour. Tejay's a tough guy and I'm sure he'll bounce back."
The Briton said he had not worked with Contador to try and eliminate more of his rivals because the distance to the finish was too far for it to be effective.
"There were still over 30 kilometres to go, and I didn't want to drop the other guys right now. I'm happy with the position I'm in," he explained.
Froome later explained on Eurosport that he still considers Contador to be a challenger. "I have to follow when Alberto goes. Even though he's lost some time he's still a dangerous threat. He's shown just how strong and tenacious he is and he's going to keep fighting all the way to the end of this Vuelta, I'm sure," he commented.
The margins, in any case, remain so small between the GC contenders that although Froome leads and Contador is more than three minutes back, there is less than a minute's time difference between the top eight.
As Froome put it before the Vuelta started, this is a race where there is never any room for relaxation and after Thursday's unexpected drama, Friday's stage at Cuenca could well be another transition stage that features some GC action.
There's another 2,700 metres of vertical climbing and culminates with a cobbled third category ascent and a very technical drop back down to the finish, too. So the chances are the sparks will fly again.
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