In a rivalry for the ages, Froome and Contador go head-to-head, but so far, the Spaniard has the upper hand

SAN EMILIANO, Spain (VN) — Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) has always had a penchant for drama throughout his long career. Whether it was attacking Andy Schleck during “Chain Gate” in the 2010 Tour de France, surviving Lance Armstrong’s mind games in 2009, or snatching the Vuelta a España away from Joaquim Rodríguez in 2012, Contador is a rider who boldly steps into the maelstrom.

Spain’s most popular rider did it again Monday, attacking arch-rival Chris Froome (Sky) with just over one kilometer to go in the Vuelta’s five-climb “queen stage” to win the day, and drive a stake into the heart of the peloton going into the final week of racing.

“It’s an important step toward winning the Vuelta,” Contador said. “No way is the Vuelta won. There are still five complicated days of racing. Today I could distance my rivals, and they are further back than before, but they’re still very close.”

Despite his caution, Contador looks more and more like the likely winner of the 2014 Vuelta, and he could not have done it in a more dramatic setting. Set in the rugged Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, which harbors some of Europe’s last wild brown bears, Contador delivered in a must-win situation.

Sky set a blistering tempo over the penultimate climb up the category 1 San Lorenzo to trim the field, and Froome made his first major attack of this Vuelta with just over five kilometers to go. The peloton fractured in his wake, but unlike in 2013, Contador could match Froome pedal stroke for pedal stroke.

With Froome blowing apart the peloton, Contador was able to equal the tempo of the 2013 Tour winner, and then surge around his wheel with about one kilometer to go to claim the stage victory.

For Contador, who was blown away by Froome in the 2013 Tour, the victory was more than welcome. He widens his lead to second-place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to 1:36, with Froome slotting into third at 1:39 back. Contador can now breath a little easier with five stages to go.

“It appears that Froome is getting better, and he set an incredible rhythm,” Contador said. “I didn’t know how far I could go, but I could see I could follow him, and later I was looking for my moment. I saw my opportunity, and I took advantage of it.”

Missed opportunities

Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) were quietly cursing a missed opportunity in Sunday’s stage up Lagos de Covadonga, when a dogfight between the top Spanish riders prevented them from collaborating to distance Froome.

On Monday, it was Froome who was dishing the pain, taking more than 40 seconds out of both of them.

Valverde could only tip his hat at Froome and Contador. The Movistar captain, who battled to fourth in the Tour, is starting to show signs of weariness in what’s been a long season. He hung on to second, but by just three seconds ahead of the surging Froome.

Valverde’s been around long enough to know that things can quickly change in a grand tour, and suggested that there are more fireworks to come in the closing week.

“Contador was very good. Froome attacked strongly, and he could follow him. Behind, I was trying to take some pulls with Purito, but we weren’t going too well, so I just did what I could,” Valverde said. “There’s still a week to go, and anything could still happen. Froome still has to take back some time to reach second. He’s good, but he has one good day, and then others not so good.”

Rodríguez, too, struggled to match the pace when Froome jumped with five kilometers to go. He tried to work with Valverde, but the two never seemed to quite understand each other, and he ended up losing a podium spot, slipping to fourth, now 53 seconds behind Froome.

“It’s clear Froome and Contador are the strongest, at least today. There’s still a week to go,” Rodríguez said. “What’s sure is that Froome won’t be content with second, and he’ll rip his skin off to try to win the Vuelta. It’s been a very hard Vuelta, with 5,000 meters [16,404 feet] of vertical climbing today that broke everything in an incredible manner today.”

Fabio Aru (Astana) tried in vain to stick with Valverde and Rodríguez, but the promising Italian, who already won a stage during this Vuelta, retained fifth, now nearly two minutes off the podium.

Others climbers moved up as well, with Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) showing no ill effects of his scary crash Sunday, when he fell into a ditch on the climb up Lagos de Covadonga. The Irishman climbed into sixth, at 6:17 back. Robert Gesink (Belkin) also moved up two spots into seventh, now 6:43 back.

Contador in driver’s seat

There still might be some reshuffling in the top-10, but it’s clear it’s a three-way fight for the podium between Froome, Valverde, and Rodríguez, with Contador sitting comfortably in the lead.

Contador, however, remains wary of celebrating too early. His right knee that he fractured during the Tour remains wrapped in tape, and despite showing signs that he is gaining strength by the day, realizes that he could suffer a setback at any moment.

After delivering the pain throughout much of his career, Contador remains cautious. He frequently cites his defeat this summer at the Critérium du Dauphiné to Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) when he was caught just in the type of ambush that he usually sets for his rivals.

And Contador continues to be haunted by the drubbing he took in 2013, in what was his worst season since his rookie year. Contador said he worked harder than ever to regain his best form, and was driven to be able to answer Froome in the Tour.

After both crashed out in July, this Vuelta was hailed as the battle that the cycling world missed this summer. Monday’s stage finally saw the pair go toe-to-toe, but in sharp contrast to 2013, Contador could not only stay with Froome, but roared past him. On Sunday, Contador hailed Froome as the most dangerous rival he’s ever faced in his career. On Monday, Contador got one up on him.

“What is helping me stay calm is that I am recovering well, despite the beating we’ve taken so far,” Contador said. “I saw how hard Sky was pulling, and I had the experience during the Dauphiné when Sky pulls, and Froome changes the rhythm, it’s hard to stay with him. When he went, I could follow his wheel, and when I looked back and saw that Valverde and Rodríguez were cut, I quickly realized it was going to be an important day for me.”

Froome, too, is motivated by the growing rivalry with Contador. It’s clear that Froome is not at his best level during this Vuelta, and told L’Equipe that he is already thinking about the 2015 Tour, but there remains one major mountain summit waiting with Ancares in the Vuelta’s penultimate stage.

“I gave everything I had, and I couldn’t drop Alberto,” Froome said. “We still have a week of racing to go, but Alberto is going to be hard to beat. I’ve been trying to build up during race, and I can be very happy. Coming into the last week, this is where I wanted to be.”

As Rodríguez suggested, Froome might not be satisfied with the podium.