Alberto Contador did say that he would perhaps try and win a stage in the third week of the Vuelta a Espana – but few people expected it to be as race leader and in such swashbuckling style.
Watching Contador sail past Chris Froome inside the final kilometre of the 16.5-kilometre ascent of La Farrapona was endurance sport’s equivalent of waiting for the killer punchline on a sitcom.
We all knew it was coming – the TV spectators, the fans on the side of the road, perhaps even Froome himself – but that didn’t take anything away from the sheer expertise of the delivery.
For the best part of three kilometres – and over the steepest double-digit gradients of the fifth and final climb of the race’s Queen Stage – Froome had done what he does best – a frantic, high-cadence, stem-centric, seated spinning that blew away his rivals one by one (while making himself look pained and perilously close to the precipice of his powers).
Already, we had seen glimpses of the Sky of old on the penultimate climb of the day, the Puerto de San Lorenzo, where the robotic men in black joined Joaquim Rodriguez’s red Katusha army in a bid to reel in the final escapees and pave the way for the finale.
Swallowed up from the break, British national champion Peter Kennaugh slipped in line to do his bit of tempo riding, handing over to Ireland’s Philip Deignan who, after succumbing to a slow puncture with 5.5 kilometres remaining, gave the baton to Mikel Nieve.
Riding back into form after a double wrist fracture sustained during the hapless defence of his 2013 Tour de France crown in July, Froome was clearly feeling ready to leave his mark on the Vuelta after his previous yo-yoing performances in the Asturias mountains.
And yet there’s still something desperate and slapdash about the way Froome is riding right now. Comparing him to Contador is like watching one swimmer perform doggy paddle merely to keep afloat and the other front crawl to win an Olympic medal.
In fact, watching Contador sit on Froome’s wheel, standing on the pedals to peer over his rival’s shoulder as he weaves across the road in a frenzy cast Contador in the ostensible mould of a guide assisting a blind runner in a Paralympic race.
If Froome is a washing machine put on an excessive spin cycle and teetering on the brink, then Contador is someone who has mastered the art of hand washing elegantly and with his feet.
Put differently, if both were actors in a blue movie, one would make you wince and close the window, while the other would make you bookmark the licentious link so you could lustfully return for repeated viewing.
Contador’s stage 16 win at Lagos de Somiedo was a victory for aesthetics as much as it was sheer power and raw climbing ability; a victory for old school cycling in the face of stem-gazing and the cult of the power-meter; for racing by feel over racing by numbers.
It also begs the question – just how dominant would Contador have been in the Tour had everyone stayed fit?
Before the race in July the sounds were that the Spaniard was in the form of his life. Froome, by comparison, had been struggling with both form and illness during what had been a very stuttered campaign.
The softly spoken Briton was also in the spotlight after the media explosion surrounding his therapeutic use exemption for corticosteroids – not to mention psychologically on the ropes following his nasty crash in the Dauphine.
Perhaps Froome would have been shown up by both Contador and Nibali had neither of the race favourites been forced out of the Tour. After all, the nature of Froome’s injuries would not have kept him off the bike or turbo trainer for long – whereas Contador needed a lengthy break from cycling of forms following his worse leg injury, and still returned the stronger of the two.
While Froome quickly threw his hat into the ring for the Vuelta (merely in preparation for the 2015 season, he tells us now), Contador announced his injuries were too severe for him to return in time for his home tour. Even when he finally confirmed his appearance, Contador played down his chances, said he was targeting a stage win over the GC and even admitted that his doctors told him it was a risk to ride in the Vuelta so soon after breaking his tibia.
I think we can all safely assume that there was a fair bit of gamesmanship going on in Contador’s pre-Vuelta statements – that, not wanting to diminish the Spaniard’s achievements in any way, his fracture was clearly not as bad as it could have been, or indeed was feared to be.
And even now, when the gulf between Contador’s masterly uphill dancing and Froome’s frantic mountain spinning looks so huge, the gap between the riders is still just north of one-and-a-half minutes.
Contador is yet to have a bad day in this year’s Vuelta – and all it would take to turn this race on its head once again is a single climb (the Puerto de Ancaras, for instance) when that leg responds in the way any normal leg should respond when asked to ride a three-week bike race less than two months after almost breaking in two.
Even with many ready to give Contador the crown, the gap between him and second-pace Alejandro Valverde is more than four minutes less than Vincenzo Nibali’s advantage over the same rider at the same stage of the Tour back in July.
There was a lot still to play for back in France – and there’s still many a strand to be tied up between here and Santiago di Compostela.
And that man Valverde is predictably rather pivotal in most subplots – besides the one involving forgotten man Carlos Betancur and the race’s inverted general classification.
Valverde may be overtaken by Froome as the rider most likely to depose Contador at the race’s summit, but the wily Spanish veteran can still run off with both the points and mountains jersey, not to mention the combined competition.
He trails John Degenkolb by just 10 points in the battle for the green jersey, with more summit finishes than expected sprints left on the agenda; Valverde is also 23 points shy of compatriot Luis Leon Sanchez’s tally in the polka dot jersey competition – with a maximum 63 points still up for grabs.
Throw in Valverde’s knack for picking up bonus seconds – he has amassed a total of 26, to Contador’s 16, Froome’s 12 and Rodriguez’s 10 – and evidence suggests the Movistar veteran has a bigger role to play in the final week in Spain than he did in July at the Tour.
This, in turn, merely makes us mourn even more the absence of Valverde’s teammate Nairo Quintana.
Now that’s a rider who could have kept up with Froome and Contador on the climb to La Farrapona. In fact, Quintana would probably have given the red jersey a run for his money when he so effortlessly shed Froome inside the final kilometre to pick up the third-week stage win he initially set as the height of his ambitions.
Revised final top ten predictions
1. Contador, 2. Froome, 3. Valverde, 4. Rodriguez, 5. Aru, 6. Martin, 7. Sanchez, 8. Gesink, 9. Barguil, 10. Navarro