Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) took an important - but arguably not decisive - step towards overall victory in the Vuelta a España after managing to drop all of his rivals en route to the stage 16 win at La Farrapona.
Team Katusha and Sky formed an unspoken alliance to keep the pace high throughout the stage, with the Russian squad doing much of the work over the first four classified climbs, then Sky taking over on the final ascent to Farrapona.
Then with four kilometres to go, after a long drive by Pete Kennaugh and a shorter, punchier burst by Mikel Nieve, Froome himself opted to go clear. But Contador, in scenes reminiscent of the Critérium du Dauphine’s opening stage when the Briton broke away, was able to stick on his back wheel.
For three kilometres, barring their overtaking and shedding Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale), the final survivor of the day-long break, there was no change of scenario: Froome driving ahead, Contador dancing on the pedals and staying in contact behind.
Then with 800 metres to go, the Spaniard shot past the Briton to claim a solo win - and deliver a trademark ‘smoking gun’ victory salute at the finish as he did so. It was Contador’s first stage win in the Vuelta - or any Grand Tour - since Fuente De in 2012, and his first victory since winning the Tour of the Basque Country back in April.
He claimed 15 seconds on Froome - plus an extra four seconds time bonus - and a significantly larger margin on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), of 55 seconds and 59 seconds on Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), fourth and fifth respectively.
Overall, Contador’s closest rival, Velverde, has dropped from being 30 seconds behind to 1:36, whilst Froome is now at 1:39 and Rodriguez at 2:29. Whilst not enormous, by any stretch of the imagination, with only one major mountain stage and one very short time trial left, the tide is beginning to flow in Contador’s favour.
“I’ve not won the Vuelta but it’s an important step forward,” Contador said, “I could distance everybody and that makes me feel satisfied.
“Froome didn’t just go for it once, it’s hard to see because he attacks sitting down but he accelerated three or four times. But my legs could respond each time.
“It’s been a good day. I saw Sky were working but I still thought I could do something. It’s a relief to have gained some time on Rodriguez and Valverde.
“But it’s not over yet, there are still five more difficult days. Anybody can have a bad day. I’m taking it step by step.” On the rest day, he said, he would do “50 kilometres in the morning, then spent the rest of it with my legs up, resting.”
He explained that he had changed bikes at the foot of the climb, because “we started off with a bike that had good tyres for the wet, yesterday we needed them because it was so slippery on the final ascent, and the weather forecast was not good. But then” with the clouds closing in - “I opted to switch to dry.”
Understandably, given how his Tour de France was wrecked by a crash, his greatest fear going into the third week was, he said, that “something unexpected might happen.”
The final question of the press conference was a loaded one, even for the Pistolero. Did he feel that Valverde and Rodriguez might now regret the lack of collaboration on the Lagos de Covadonga, where - when the three Spaniards were ahead - they might have squeezed out Chris Froome for the running?
Contador wisely decided not to re-stoke the dying embers of that particular mini-scandal by saying: “I’m only thinking about my race, everybody else can think about their own.”
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