VALLADOLID, Spain (VN) – Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) soaked up the accolades during Thursday’s hot trot in stage 18, just 24 hours following his audacious attack to snatch the red jersey at the Vuelta a España.
Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan) pipped Ben Swift (Sky) to win his first race of the season in a bunch sprint, but all the buzz was still about Contador’s thrilling ride to Fuente Dé on Wednesday.
A day after the big race-changing move, Contador admitted he was surprised the long-distance raid was so successful.
“To tell the truth, I could have never imagined that the race could have turned out so good,” Contador said about Wednesday’s turn of events. “I knew I was feeling good and I wanted to try something. But to take the jersey and gain so much time? Boof! Better than I could have hoped.”
When the dust settled, Contador had turned the Vuelta upside, converting a 28-second deficit to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) into an all-but-insurmountable cushion of 1:52 to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
“It was a good feeling to have the leader’s jersey today,” Contador said. “I was thinking about what happened yesterday. This Vuelta was very complicated and to have things turn out the way they did, we couldn’t be more content.”
With just the Bola del Mundo on Saturday standing between Contador and likely victory in Madrid, the Spanish media is already crowning him the victor of the 67th Vuelta.
The headlines Thursday morning piled it on thick. “Contador, for eternity,” wrote AS. El País heralded Contador as a “crazed romantic” and MARCA compared the raid to some of the mythical coups in cycling history.
Things were not looking so rosy for Contador just 48 hours earlier. Rodríguez seemed to have Contador’s number, patiently marking his attacks and then coming off his wheel in the closing meters to open gaps and earn time bonuses.
Contador was clearly frustrated after failing to dislodge Rodríguez up the brutally steep ramps of Cuitu Negru on Monday, where Contador rode a 36×32, but was unable to spin away from the stubborn “Purito.”
He sat down with team boss Bjarne Riis on Tuesday’s rest to talk strategy. They both acknowledged that it was too risky to wait for the Bola del Mundo climb on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage.
Similar to Cuitu Negru, the Bola del Mundo climb is more like a mountain bike climb, so steep that accelerating and holding a gap is hard to do. Those kinds of climbs favor Rodríguez and if he arrived so close to Madrid with the red jersey on his back, it would be even harder to crack him.
They knew they needed to think outside the box. Wednesday’s hilly stage was harder than it looked on paper. Saxo Bank’s Benjamín Noval lives close by and said the final climb to Fuente Dé was going to be fast.
Contador’s antennae went up early in Wednedsay’s stage when Rodríguez was gapped early in the stage on an unrated climb at around 40km. The first hour of the race was insanely fast, with an average speed of 48 kph, and Saxo Bank buried the accelerator. Riders such as Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) were getting shelled out the back. It took nearly 20km before Katusha could put Rodríguez back on the wheel.
When they arrived to the pair of climbs 50km from the finish line, Saxo Bank laid its trap, and Katusha was caught sleeping. Rodríguez admitted he struggles a day after a rest day, but made no excuses.
“You can only congratulate Contador for what he did yesterday,” Rodríguez said at the start on Thursday. “He proved he’s the strongest. Sure, it was hard for me to lose the jersey, but to lose it to Contador in the way that he rode takes a little sting off the pain. I would rather lose it like that than lose it by a few seconds on Bola del Mundo.”
Contador was elated with the double of stage victory and leader’s jersey. The team celebrated Wednesday night with a toast to a job well done. Contador said it was important to stick to his guns and keep attacking.
“We’ve all been attacking and giving our skins every day in this Vuelta,” Contador said. “It was frustrating, but I never stopped believing it was possible. I knew there was still terrain to attack. Now we’re in a more comfortable position.”
Friday’s transition stage will require Contador to be attentive, but it shouldn’t present any major problems. For Saturday’s climbing stage to Bola del Mundo, it will likely unfold as a coronation parade for Contador to reclaim his title as the king of the grand tours.
As we saw on Wednesday, it’s never over until it’s over, but Contador knows he can breathe easier following yesterday’s extraordinary performance.