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JAEN, Spain (VN) — The mood around the Team Sky bus on a gloomy, cloudy morning was hard to read. Chris Froome had ceded time to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in Friday’s showdown, and everyone was putting his best face forward.
“What happens now doesn’t decide who is going to win the Tour de France,” Nicholas Roche told VeloNews just minutes before the start of the uphill finale in stage 4. “Chris is on track, and he’s not worried.”
Five hours later, Froome delivered a stunning counter-punch on the steep slopes of the mountains of southern Spain, winning the stage at Alto de Allanadas, and taking back enough time to claim the leader’s jersey by just two seconds. What happens in February does indeed count.
“I’m absolutely blown away to have pulled that off,” Froome told TeamSky.com. “I came into this race thinking that, ‘I’m here to find my legs, test them, and see where I’m at.’ To have been able to win the stage and go into the race lead today is incredible.”
Stage 4 saw a reversal of fortunes for both riders from Friday’s third stage, when Contador turned the screws with an attack 7km from the finale to win the stage by 19 seconds over Froome.
On Saturday, it was Sky’s turn. The team took control, and Froome uncorked a searing attack that left Contador struggling to keep pace.
“There are days when you have better legs, and others when you don’t,” Contador said diplomatically at the line. “His attack is very sharp, very strong, and he doesn’t stop. …
“I wasn’t aware of the time differences, but I knew it was possible that he could take away the leader’s jersey. … That’s cycling. The Ruta has been a great race.”
In Friday’s stage, Tinkoff-Saxo set a blistering pace leading toward the final climb, with Ivan Basso taking impressive pulls to fracture the peloton. Froome couldn’t match the pace, but eventually found his rhythm, and paced across the line second to Contador, who looked to have the Ruta del Sol, a race he’s never won, firmly in control.
“[Friday’s] stage was about, ‘Look how strong I am,’” said Caleb Fairly (Giant-Alpecin) at the start. “It makes for a very hard race when these guys are already going full gas.”
Saturday’s weather made for a challenging day of racing, with fog, rain, cold temperatures, and slick roads. Several riders pulled the plug on the race, but the much-anticipated showdown between Froome and Contador was still to play out.
Even Contador was cautious about jumping to conclusions, despite taking seconds on Froome in the opening-day time trial and again in Friday’s uphill finale. And he also downplayed the significance of Saturday’s drubbing.
“I am very happy with my preparation. Yesterday, when I won, everyone said, ‘Oh, look how strong he is,’ but I have a plan,” Contador said. “I am looking at my objectives toward the Giro, and everything is going in the right direction. Revenge? Everyone has their own goals, and mine are the Giro and Tour.”
Even if they didn’t say it publicly, Saturday was indeed revenge for Sky, with Peter Kennaugh and Mikel Nieve taking huge pulls, and Nieve finishing third in the stage.
Contador initially covered Froome’s initial surge, but he quickly found the pace a touch too intense. Perhaps thinking that Froome couldn’t maintain the pace, Contador faltered, riding up at his own rhythm. Froome, meanwhile, just kept piling it on, up ramps as steep as 20 percent.
When he hit the red kite, it was obvious Froome was going to win. The only question was whether he would have enough to take the leader’s jersey. Without finish-line time bonuses, every second counted, and Froome now carries a slender over Contador into Sunday’s finale.
“My teammate rode exceptionally to set it up,” Froome said. “They made the race as hard as possible on the last climb, attacking and really setting it up for me.”
Sunday’s undulating stage doesn’t present any real opportunity for Contador to attack Froome, but Tinkoff-Saxo might have another trick up their sleeves. The team loves to attack on the flats, and they have caught out Froome before (in the 2013 Tour de France), so Froome knows it’s never over until he crosses the finish line.