Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) won on Saturday for the first time in more than a year, delivering a morale-boosting victory in the climbing stage at the Volta ao Algarve.
Contador, 30, had not won a race since taking a stage last January in the 2013 Tour de San Luís, but rediscovered his winning legs in the steep summit finale at Malhao, finishing three seconds clear of runner-up Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), with overnight leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) crossing the line 10 seconds adrift to retain the leader’s jersey.
Chris Horner crossed the line seventh at 14 seconds back after trying to set up his world-champion teammate Costa for the win.
With a sprinter’s stage on tap Sunday, it’s unlikely Contador will be able to erase the 16 seconds remaining between him and the Pole, but the victory will go a long way to reconfirm his confidence.
“The physical condition is better each day, and the work I’ve done over the winter is paying off,” Contador said at the finish. “We must remain focused, keep doing everything the right way, and I hope the results keep coming in the next races.”
The victory comes as a salve for Contador, racing for the first time this season following his bumpy ride across the 2013 calendar.
After winning in his 2013 debut at San Luís, Contador was uncharacteristically blanked for the remainder of the year in what was his worst season, at least in terms of victories, since his rookie year.
Unable to shake Sky’s Chris Froome during last year’s Tour de France, where Contador finished a disappointing fourth, he skipped defending his title at the Vuelta a España to regroup for 2014.
Contador has buckled down, and rather than travel to faraway places such as Dubai, Argentina or Australia to race, he’s stayed in Spain, training primarily on the Canary Islands.
“So far, the season is going perfectly,” said Contador, who thanked his Tinkoff-Saxo teammates for setting a high pace leading up to the short but steep final run up the Malhao summit.
“I was steady in the final kilometer, then I launched two accelerations, and seeing that Kwiatkowski was on the limit, I countered, and went alone.”
Contador admitted that the short Malhao climb was not long enough to take back the 26 seconds he forfeited to Kwiatkowski in Friday’s time trial.
Still, for the Spaniard, the victory came as a sort of reconfirmation. And for the 23-year-old Kwiatkowski, defending against Contador sets him up to take the first stage race victory of his promising young career.
“It was a hard day. The pace was really high, but I had so much support from my teammates. We were controlling the whole race. I am thankful to them because without them I couldn’t defend the jersey,” he said.
“Guys like Rui Costa and Alberto Contador, they really wanted to win and even take the jersey from me. So it was a real fight to the finish.
“I was trying to keep the wheel of Contador, but he always was looking back to see how I felt based on how I looked. He was always changing the rhythm, and at about 250 meters I was suffering. I really wanted to even win the stage, but I maybe wanted it too much and paid for it near the top of the climb.
“Still, I defended the jersey and that was the main goal. To finish third with guys like that, and stay the leader, I am happy. It was a good lesson for me today and there’s one more stage tomorrow. We will do our best for a good stage result, and maybe also win the overall for the second year in a row.”
Last year, Kwiatkowski rode to second on GC behind teammate Tony Martin, whom he also beat in Friday’s time trial. Barring major changes, Kwiatkowski will be the one standing on the top spot of the podium Sunday.
The 40th Volta concludes Sunday with a 155km stage from Tavira to Vilamoura, featuring five laps on a 11.9km circuit. It should see another showdown between Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who remains winless on the 2014 season.