Chris Froome and Team Sky used the first mountain stage of the Vuelta a España to deliver a powerful attack that placed the Briton in the lead for the first time in six years, but which still leaves him only narrowly ahead of most of his main rivals after three stages.
Froome's punchy move over the top of the second-category Cornella followed a devastating display of climbing strength by Sky en masse in the mountains of Andorra, starting on the first-category Rabassa climb.
Even before Froome opened up the throttle on the Cornella, teammate Gianni Moscon's stunning acceleration, in particular, had caused Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) to sink like a stone at the back of the group. Next on the front for Sky was Mikel Nieve, shrinking the group to just 15 riders, with his steady pace causing Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb) to fall off the pace.
Froome had already shown a gung-ho attitude by battling for a sprint time bonus, snatching two seconds with a second place behind teammate Diego Rosa. But it was his move around 800 metres from the summit of the Cornella that did far more damage.
Only Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) was able to follow, and it briefly looked as if Froome was going to open up more of a gap on the descent in a repetition of his downhill charge away in the 2016 Tour to Luchon. But instead he and the Colombian were caught by Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana) and then by a larger group of favourites including Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), David de La Cruz (Quick Step Floors), Nicolas Roche and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R). Finally Froome, despite a quick late dig, ended up in third place on the line.
The top 10 overall are within less than 50 seconds, meaning that rather than the knock-out blow on the first mountain stage that Froome has delivered in the Tours of 2013 and 2015, there is still margin for recovery for his rivals. However, as a confirmation of who the rider will be to beat in this year's Tour, Sky's collective performance, coupled with Froome's attack and leader's jersey is a huge statement of intent.
"It's a great feeling to be back in the leader's jersey after six years of fighting to be in this position, but I'm fully aware of how close the race is between me and other rivals," Froome said.
"Chaves did a great ride today, he was the only guy who could follow me over the top of that climb. Nibali is very focussed on being ready for this year's Vuelta, he's still very close and there's only two seconds between myself and the next group of favourites. I'm going to have to fight for every second I can at every opportunity."
Froome said that his intention today was "to push on a little bit, to see exactly who's here to fight for GC and who's not. The team was just fantastic, too, Gianni Moscon did a brilliant job, this is his first Grand Tour and he destroyed the field. I had to ask him to slow down at one point because he was dropping me off his wheel and I have to thank them for doing such a good job."
Asked if he thought he was in as good shape as after the Tour, Froome said, "It's very difficult to tell. It's still very early in the race, today [Monday] was quite a short, punchy climb and the next week or so will show a lot more. For now I'm feeling good, I'm going to do everything to try and hold onto the jersey.
"I know it's going to be close that's why I have kept on going for those bonus seconds. But I certainly think doing the Tour-Vuelta double is possible. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here."
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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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