The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
Alberto Contador’s pair of thrilling wins at Tirreno-Adriatico has struck a new layer of intrigue into the cycling season.
Two devastating stage wins and a likely overall victory this week suggest the Spaniard has found his old legs. Perhaps Chris Froome will have some genuine competition in the Tour de France, after all.
It’s hard to truly judge Contador’s level with Froome absent and Richie Porte having abandoned the race after stage four, but the Tinkoff-Saxo leader’s display on stage five of Tirreno-Adriatico was one of the most dominant rides seen in recent years.
Narrowly defeating Nairo Quintana on stage four was impressive enough, but stage five was a ride of such breathtaking confidence and daring that it instantly brought back memories of Contador’s pomp, before his doping ban and a lacklustre 2013.
He attacked with 33km to go, on the day’s longest climb, the Passo Lanciano. Quintana tried to follow but was unable to bridge to Contador, who seemed to lift every time the Colombian drew near, and quickly fell back to the chase group.
Contador danced up the climb in his characteristic out-of-the-saddle style, light-footed and rhythmical.
He caught Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) near the summit, but Hansen was flat out holding a wheel as Contador dragged the Australian back to where he had just come from: the remnants of the day’s break.
The pair caught the trio of Simon Geschke (Giant-Shimano), Ben King (Garmin-Sharp) and David De La Cruz (NetApp-Endura) with 9km remaining, Hansen doggedly grasping his wheel, and Contador proceeded to drive the group of five all the way to the base of the final climb, hell-bent on extending the gap to his general classification rivals.
It was like watching a comet with a multi-coloured tail streaking across the valley.
Never once did Contador look back for help, and never once did anyone else pull a turn.
By the time Contador hit the ‘Wall’ of Guardiagrele, he had been virtually time-trialling for 33km. This should have taken enough out of his legs to ruin his chances of winning on the final climb.
Garmin-Sharp’s King attacked first, perhaps hoping more than truly believing that Contador’s legs were wearing flat, but his attempt came to an almost literal standstill on the steepest part of the climb.
Metre by metre, Contador wound King back in an agonising slow-motion pursuit, before delivering a blow as gentle as a mother’s kiss to kill the American’s hopes of a stage win stone dead.
It was gripping television. You know a climb is steep when a climber of Contador’s calibre is zig-zagging across the road at walking pace, in a 34-28 gear usually reserved for cycle tourists.
Geschke clung on gamely to drag his beard across the line a few seconds after Contador, with King hanging on for third, and Australia’s Hardest Man™ Adam Hansen in fourth.
However, the real action was happening further back, where Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R), Michele Scarponi (Astana), Mikel Nieve (Sky), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Daniel Moreno (Katusha), Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) and JC Peraud (AG2R) were all unable to maintain contact, with Peraud the best of the group at the finish, 1’26” behind Contador.
Race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (OPQS) lost six minutes, perhaps suffering the effects of the 244km previous day, but he was in good company: Cadel Evans (BMC), Rigoberto Uran (OPQS) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) were among the big names even further back.
Things would have to go disastrously wrong for Contador to lose this race now, with big time gaps unlikely in stage six, and a short 9.1km time trial in stage seven.
After stage five, Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov (@olegtinkov) tweeted what was on plenty of people’s minds:
— Oleg Tinkov (@olegtinkov) March 16, 2014
Tinkov tweets a big game, and he’s been trash-talking Team Sky mercilessly all week, while talking up Contador’s form.
Given Tinkov’s reputation as a loose cannon and penchant for drunk-tweets, it’s easy to dismiss him much of the time.
But when his team leader pulls off two consecutive solo wins on summit finishes in a major race, and leads a gun field by over two minutes, you have to concede he’s got a point.
With their Tour leader injured and their Giro d’Italia leader falling ill, Team Sky’s management have enough to keep them occupied without having to worry about a revitalised Contador tearing the legs off some of the best climbers in the world.
Is the old ‘Pistolero’ back?