Another Vuelta stage, another Alberto Contador attempt to blow the race to molten pieces.
Some riders like to ease into retirement but the Spaniard has managed to skillfully combine a farewell tour with a wild man’s homicidal bender. Think of that balancing act: he’s having fun at the same time he’s attacking the peloton and all his rivals.
This is not a balloons and chocolate cake with fourteen candles for each year of his professional career. No, Contador wants to go out in pure Pistolero style, firing every bullet he has before Madrid and hanging up the wheels.
Today on stage 17, he jumped off the front with Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) at the base of the fearsome Alto de los Machucos, a glorified cow track with double digit grades and sections at 20%. He later dropped the Colombian, who had done the same to him on Tuesday, and started reeling in the shattered breakaway.
The official name of the event is the Vuelta a Espana but you could be forgiven for calling it the Alberto Contador Leg Show or the Pistolero Machine-gun Special. The man has no quit, he doesn’t own a white flag, he had the word surrender burned out of his brain in a rare surgical procedure.
He won the stage in brilliant fashion — no, he didn’t win but it felt like victory anyway — against time and age, against power meter racing, against formula and convention, against television boredom.
“It was a good stage for me, particularly because when I had to push deeper, my legs responded well,” said Contador, happy with the results, if not the stage win. “It was a pity I couldn’t do it. But this has been the day I’ve felt the best in all three weeks, and I like this rainy weather, too.”
Contador’s bold strategy and willful abuse opened up the race behind, as a number of Froome’s top rivals pulled away from the Sky armada and opened up significant gaps. Chief beneficiary: Vincenzo Nibali who powered forward, taking 42 seconds back on his two minute deficit, moving to within 1:16 with the prospect of more gains on the hors categorie Angliru tomorrow.
“I tackled this climb as hard as I could, and it’s a climb that I won’t forget in a hurry,” said Nibali. “It’s a bit like the Zoncolan or the Angliru or the Bola del Mundo, a real climb.”
Nibali could see no weakness on Froome’s face and was surprised (and pleased) to see the Briton struggle. The Italian slowly but surely pulled away from the Froome group, led by Mikel Nieve.
“In the last climb I had slightly unusual feelings after yesterday’s time trial stage, but then I found my own pace and I went up the climb very well. I collaborated well with Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), because we both wanted to take back time in the overall, and that was a good thing.”
It was also a very good thing for Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), who now have a firmer grip on third and fourth, at 2:13 and 2:25 behind Froome.
The Sky captain put a positive spin on the time losses but he didn’t look quite like himself on los Machucos. It’s just the nature of the race. It’s the same for everyone of course. I don’t think anyone really enjoys gradients over 25 per cent, but that’s just how it is, and it’s the same for all of us. It’s never nice to lose time, but I still feel good, and three more days, I’m confident we can get the job done.”
The intriguing note of drama? Andy Hood of Velonews wrote that Froome’s voice was rough on the rest day press event and that he was coughing pretty good after today’s stage. Is he fighting off a cold, did he go a little too deep in the time trial, will he walk up tomorrow feeling worse, with the Angliru on tap? That’s a dream scenario for Vincenzo Nibali, who already has one dramatic grand tour comeback victory (the Giro) to his credit.
What, for that matter does the resurgent Alberto Contador still have in his legs? His exports in this Vuelta have generally followed a pattern: attached a day, recover a day, repeat. Would be be extraordinary for him to put two superhuman days together and ride himself onto the podium on the Angliru? We suspect Alberto will only make a move if Nibali, Zakarin or Kelderman have a bad day.
There are after all, unavoidable realities and simple math to contend with. “I’m close to the podium and a long way off from it,” said Contador said. “Today I’ve got a lot closer. Of course, I’d like to win the race, but I have to be realistic and there are riders and rivals who are very strong ahead of me. Things can always change in a race, but that’s going to be very tough.”
Depending on Froome’s powers of recovery, tomorrow in the mountains might become very tough indeed.
U.S. Bonus question: Can Tejay van Garderen (BMC) climb to tenth on GC? He’s only 1:10 away.