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Contador’s Vuelta storybook ending falls short

Alberto Contador looked like the old gunslinger of his glory days when he blasted up Wednesday’s beyond-steep Los Machucos climb to revive his podium hopes at the Vuelta a España.

The “Pistolero” was back to his blistering best, reminding everyone why he is one of the most exciting racers in the peloton. Fans will miss him after he retires Sunday in Madrid.

“It’s truly a pity that I couldn’t win the stage,” Contador said at the line. “It was a good stage, but even more so because my legs responded when I attacked.”

In the cold, foggy, and wet conditions in which he thrives, Contador catapulted out of the main group, following an early surge from Miguel Ángel López (Astana).

“These are the best legs I’ve had so far in this Vuelta,” Contador said. “When I got out of the saddle, the bike took off. I knew which wheel I had to follow, and that was López. When he jumped, I was a little bit behind, and when I caught up to him, I decided to go alone. I knew that no one would be attacking with as much conviction as I would be.”

What’s Contador racing for? Pride? One last taste of glory? Saying goodbye on his terms? Going out like a fighter? Probably all that and more.

His innate pride shone through the mist and clouds engulfing the fearsome Machucos summit. The winding, twisting climb lost in the fog of Cantabria is near the site of one of his greatest coups: the attacking victory at Fuente Dè in 2012 that delivered him that year’s Vuelta victory.

Contador has spent a career defying the odds, and on Wednesday, it looked like he might have the fitting end. Defying gravity on the 25-percent ramps, Contador was gapping the GC leaders, and patiently scooping up the breakaway riders.

Only a cagey and equally emotional Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue Sport), who won out of a breakaway, could spoil Contador’s storybook ending that he is desperately chasing this Vuelta.

It wasn’t all for naught. Contador gained 36 seconds on his GC rivals, and 1:18 on race leader Chris Froome (Sky).

“The podium? It’s closer, but still far. He took back a lot of time, so we are close and far at the same time,” Contador said. “I want to win, but I am also a realist. I have riders and rivals ahead of me who are very strong. Things can always happen, but it’s complicated.”

This entire Vuelta has been one long, emotional goodbye for the proud warrior. Fans surround the Trek-Segafredo bus every morning. They line the route, carrying signs and cheering their hero.

So far, he’s resisted calls by the Spanish national coach to race world championships in Norway, or even pressure to race one more season.

Contador remains resolute about retirement. He’s equally determined to go out with his head held high.

“I have four days left as a professional,” Contador said. “I am going to enjoy them.”

What’s fun for Contador means pain for his rivals, and a delight for everyone watching from the sidelines.

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