MALAGA, Spain (VN) — That damn Alberto Contador.
Was it for fun? Or a realistic bid to turn the stage upside down? Either way, the Spanish superstar proved yet again he is capable of turning any race on its head in an instant.
“It was a quiet stage until Contador attacked,” said an exasperated Chris Froome (Sky), who crashed twice and gave up valuable seconds. “I am grateful that I had two teammates with me. It could have been worse.”
The Trek-Segafredo captain attacked over a late second-category climb, and in the ensuing chaotic chase, race leader Froome crashed twice, swapped his bike, and managed to limit the losses to just 20 seconds to his direct rivals.
Froome defended red, now 59 seconds ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), but he probably is counting the days until Contador retires.
The four-time Tour de France winner admitted he dodged a bullet.
“I am grateful that I am not injured, and everything is OK for tomorrow,” Froome said. “No one likes to crash like that and lose time. We know we have to be concentrated every day until Madrid.”
This wasn’t quite a replay of last year’s debacle on the road to Formigal that cost Froome the 2016 Vuelta, but it was very close.
Team Sky has been obsessed with avoiding a replay of “Froomigal,” and so far this year, Sky has throttled the bunch to keep Froome firmly in control.
After a tense nearly hour-long battle to form the day’s main breakaway, the GC riders steadily tapped away as sun and heat returned to the Vuelta.
Contador had something else up his sleeve as the reduced GC group approached the steep Cat. 2 climb at Puerto del Torcal with about 30km to go. Contador leaned over to former teammate and friend Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing) and winked. Something was up.
“At one point, Alberto looked over at me,” Roche told BMC sport director Yvon Ledanois. “We looked at each other, and Alberto winked. And there you go.”
Roche got the heads-up, and tried in vain to follow. He later said, “I couldn’t stay with him. Alberto was just going too fast.”
Contador went alone, and reached the summit about 20 seconds clear of the chasing GC group. So far, it looked like a repeat of “Froomigal” was not in the cards.
Then a few things happened in quick succession: First, Contador had Trek-Segafredo teammate Edward Theuns waiting from the day’s early breakaway, and the pair punched the accelerator.
“My legs have never hurt so much in my life,” Theuns said. “When I heard Alberto attacked, I waited a few minutes for him to come up, then we went full-gas.”
And then Froome’s near-perfect Vuelta started to unravel. He slipped and fell on one tight corner coming down narrow, slick roads. The crash bent his levers. He decided to swap bikes. Minutes later, Froome lost his front wheel a second time, and splayed across the pavement.
Things escalated. Froome quickly remounted each time, but Contador and Theuns were powering up the road. Froome was more concerned about the GC group, which included all of his top rivals, including second-place rider Nibali.
At this point, with less than 20km to go, there was no waiting. No time for protocol or unwritten rules. The race was on.
“When Alberto went, we were going all-out to chase him,” Nibali said. “ When Froome crashed, we were already going full-gas to try to catch Contador, so there was no waiting. Had we waited for Froome, Contador would have gained even more time.”
The GC group was already trimmed to about two-dozen riders after climbing the Cat. 1 Alto de León, so Froome only had two warm bodies in the bunch. Wout Poels and Mikel Nieve quickly sat up, and helped pace Froome over the closing kilometers. It wasn’t enough, but it limited the damage. Contador gained 22 seconds on the GC bunch, and Froome lost 20 seconds to the GC group.
“For a finale like this, you have to be happy with what we managed to get,” Contador said. “We will keep fighting all the way to Madrid.”
For Froome, who’s finished second three times in the Vuelta (including once to Contador), he can’t wait to get to Madrid. And to say goodbye to Contador once and for all.