Alberto Contador animates race as Alejandro Valverde wins stage 3, takes lead at 2012 Vuelta a España

Alejandro Valverde takes the stage and the jersey, but Alberto Contador shows he's out for blood

ARRATE, Spain (VN) — Alberto Contador came out to play on Monday, attacking a half-dozen times en route to the finish of stage 3 at Alto de Arrate and proving that he will indeed be a contender for the overall at the 2012 Vuelta a España.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won the mountainous 155km stage and took the leader’s red jersey from teammate Jonathan Castroviejo, but it was Contador who lit up the stage with a flurry of late attacks that quickly separated the contenders from the pretenders.

The scraps of a daylong break featuring danger man Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) were swept up by the Team Sky-led bunch just as the race hit the lower slopes of the Alto de Arrate, a 5.5km ascent averaging 7.8 percent.

Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) opened proceedings with a sharp attack, but it was El Pistolero who laid down the law on the final climb, attacking again and again until there were just four riders left to contend for the stage victory — Contador, Valverde, Joachim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Chris Froome (Sky).

On the short downhill run to the line Valverde took a photo-finish win from Rodriquez — who appeared to sit up just a bit before the line — with Froome third and Contador fourth.

Valverde praised the runner-up, saying Rodriguez could easily have won the stage.

“Purito deserved to win as much as I did,” Valverde said. “He gave me a bit of a scare but at the end he got a bit confident and I passed him.”

When the times were tallied, Valverde was the new race leader ahead of teammate Benat Intxausti Elorriaga with Rodriguez third.

Valverde said he and Castroviejo were satisfied with their performance so far.

“We are happy. We have kept the leadership — the person has changed but we have kept it in the team,” he said, before warning that there was a long way to go.

“Anything can happen on the first day in the mountains,” he said. “These days of heat can take it out of you. Arriving in Madrid with the red jersey is very difficult becasue your rivals are very strong.”

Pim Ligthart (Team Vacansoleil-DCM) took the mountains jersey for best climber.

On Tuesday, the Vuelta’s riders face a spectacular 160km fourth stage from Barakaldo in the Basque Country to Valdezcaray in Rijoa, near a popular ski resort.

Race results >>

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from the 2012 Vuelta a España.