Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) has always been a rider who prefers to let his legs do the talking. The Spanish superstar is a humble family man who doesn’t pack the arrogance or attitude that typically accompanies a rider of his stature and success.
So it was somewhat of a surprise when Contador stood up during his rest day press conference Monday to say loud and clear he was now ready to race to win the Vuelta a España. He started the race unsure that his injured leg would hold up, but he was getting through the initial nine stages better than anyone could have imagined.
Tuesday’s race of truth saw Contador speaking once again with his legs, riding into the race leader’s jersey that many suspect will be very difficult to steal away from him with 11 days of racing still to go.
“It’s a big surprise to be wearing the red leader’s jersey,” Contador said. “To tell the truth, I couldn’t imagine wearing the leader’s jersey right now. It’s a huge surprise. The first seven days were truly difficult.”
When the dust settled in Borja, the resulting fallout was impressive. As expected, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) topped the leaderboard.
Right behind him was the surprising figure of diminutive Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who “won” the battle between the GC favorites, stopping the clock just 15 seconds slower in another spectacular TT for the Colombian who won a similar stage at the Giro d’Italia.
Contador was fourth, just 21 seconds slower than third-place Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). Archrival Chris Froome (Sky) could only muster 10th on a day that was critical for him to take gains.
All eyes were on Froome, and he could not deliver when he had to. The 2013 Tour de France winner said he went too hard out of the gate, and it cost him later.
“Obviously, I was hoping for a better ride today,” Froome said on Sky’s website. “I definitely started too fast. For the first 15 minutes, I felt fantastic. By the time I hit the climb, I started to really feel the effort.”
Froome is still within range of Contador, fifth at 1:18 back, and promised to keep fighting, but also seemed to bow his head a tad.
“I’m just over one minute off GC, with a lot of racing yet to come. I am going to keep fighting as best as I can every day,” Froome said. “My goal coming into this Vuelta was to get a grand tour in my legs and finish off the season in good form. I think all things considered, I’m still on track for that. I’m going to take it one day at a time.”
Contador started Tuesday’s time trial second-to-last, just ahead of overnight leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar), which meant he did not see his Colombian rival overcook a curve in an horrendous crash. Contador was hell-bent on taking time on all of his GC rivals.
“I was confident I could post a decent time trial,” Contador said. “The differences to Froome are important because he’s a specialist. I didn’t start the stage thinking I was going to lose time to him.”
As expected, the time trial juggled the overall standings going into the final, most challenging part of the Vuelta. What was unexpected was Quintana’s crash coming off the Moncayo climb. He tumbled off his bike, and plummeted out of the leader’s jersey, dropping to 11th at 3:25 back.
Without Quintana breathing down his neck, Contador will now be able to more easily handle Valverde, second at 27 seconds back, and Urán, who climbed from ninth to third, at 59 seconds back. Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing) also posted a strong ride, climbing into podium contention, now seventh, 1:41 behind his countryman in the lead.
Perennial podium man Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) did well to limit his losses, but slotted into sixth overall at 1:37 back, likely too far back to seriously challenge Contador in the climbing stages that loom in Asturias and Galicia in the Vuelta’s final week.
Contador is clearly now in the driver’s seat. Backed by a strong and experienced Tinkoff-Saxo team, Contador won’t make silly mistakes, and he will be pressing the action, forcing the others to react to his moves.
“Contador has been the strongest in the mountains, with what he did Sunday, and then he comes back again and does it again in the time trial,” said Belkin sport director Erik Dekker. “I believe that Contador is now going to win the Vuelta. There might be some surprises behind, but only for the fight for the podium.”
Contador’s growing condition matches his ever-steady confidence. Back at the press conference, Contador repeated what he said Monday — he’s here to win the Vuelta.
“I’m in the red jersey, clearly thinking about the victory,” Contador said. “Everyone will be looking at me. If I can manage to win the Vuelta, it will be incredible after my fall at the Tour. I still want to take things easily. I had great legs at the Dauphiné, and I still didn’t win.
“My objective is to have the jersey in Santiago [where the Vuelta ends September 14],” he said. “It’s better to be ahead than behind. I had more pressure in the Tour, and here, everything that comes is a bonus. This Vuelta is just starting. Nothing is decided, and it’s still very open. Let’s not get carried away.”