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Vuelta a Espana

Six seconds could be an eternity when final times are tallied at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana

Six seconds might well decide who will end up on the final podium at the Vuelta a España

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EIBAR, Spain (VN) – It was only six seconds, but might have been a mile.

The difference between the four leaders and the rest of the fractured peloton was minimal, but those six seconds might well decide who will end up on the final podium at the Vuelta a España.

The Vuelta’s first of 10 summit finishes came fast and furious in Monday’s third stage, and it quickly proved a litmus test of who is and isn’t podium material in Madrid on September 9.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) crossed the line that order atop the short but explosive Arrate climb.

That foursome could be fighting for the podium in three weeks’ time. In which order remains to be seen.

Bertie attacks, the rest follow

Contador promised he was going to attack and attack he did, no less than seven times on the 7km climb up Arrate, one of the most famous climbs in cycling-crazed Basque Country. Each time the chasing riders almost reeled in the leaders, Contador gritted his teeth and unleashed another acceleration.

A funny thing happened, though. While he put the hurt on everyone, and spit more than a few GC favorites well out the back (see below), Contador couldn’t drop everyone. Rodríguez and Valverde both were able to mark Contador’s every move. Froome dangled, but spun his way back every time.

It was hard to read too much into the first of what will be many attacks in the coming weeks, but Contador didn’t seem to have the same punch as he did in the past. And despite attacking so many times — and perhaps because he did — Contador lacked the zip to sprint for the time bonuses at the line.

For Contador, it seemed that setting the tone was the most important thing.

Froome appeared to be on the ropes, but after crossing the finish line earning the third-place four-second bonus, the Kenya-born Sky captain calmly surveyed the situation.

“I didn’t see any need in sprinting off to close those gaps (to Contador),” Froome said. “I was trying to control it at my own speed. We have some really hard mountains coming up and today was not the day to push too hard.”

For Froome, staying with Contador comes as a relief. After riding to second at the Tour and bronze in the Olympic time trial, even the Sky captain had doubts about his form.

Climbing to fourth overall at 20 seconds back, Froome said he was content to survive the first touch with the mountains.

“It was a bit of an unknown coming here after the Tour and the Olympics, but the legs are feeling all right,” Froome continued. “The team is doing a super job protecting me. We should be in for a good three weeks of racing.”

It was the unlikely character of Valverde who came away as the day’s big winner. By following Contador, he all but assured himself the leader’s jersey. The stage victory and the 12-second bonus were gravy for the 2009 Vuelta winner, who wasn’t even going to race this edition of the Spanish national tour until things didn’t go as planned at the Tour.

“I am super happy, not only to get the leader’s jersey, but to win the stage as well,” said Valverde, racing his first Vuelta since winning in 2009 following his two-year racing ban. “The level of the rivals is very high. I can only take this Vuelta day to day, but things have started off perfect, so I will keep fighting all the way to Madrid.”

Not everyone was happy with today’s outcome, though.

After coolly marking Contador’s accelerations, Rodríguez surged into the lead position to sweep through the final right-hander with 150m to go and what he thought was a clear shot to victory.

Instead, Valverde pipped him at the line and was even overheard yelling out to Rodríguez when he stopped for the soigneurs, “¡Lo siento, Purito!” (I am sorry, Purito!).

“I was able to stay with Contador, for this I am content,” said Rodríguez at the finish line. “But I feel like an idiot for losing the stage. I should have won the stage and have my name etched among the winners at Arrate. Instead, I let Valverde come around me, so that’s why I am angry with myself. No one gives away victories in this sport. It was mine to win.”

If the Vuelta ends like it’s started out, it could well be these four dividing the pieces of the cake.

In the middle way

Behind the leading four was a big group of 10 riders who crossed the line at just six seconds off the leading pace.

Riding solidly in that group was Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), who bolstered his GC ambitions following an unfortunate team time trial Saturday in Pamplona that saw him give up 1:27 coming right out of the starting blocks.

Talansky climbed into the top-20 overall and clearly becomes Garmin’s lone GC candidate after Christophe Le Mevel gave up 1:28 on the stage.

Also in the lead chase group were Beñat Inxausti (Movistar), who climbed into second overall at 18 seconds behind Valverde, and the Rabobank pair of Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink.

Nicholas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Rigoberto Urán (Sky), Dani Moreno (Katusha) and Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) all rode well to keep alive their GC ambitions.

No way is the Vuelta over for any of those riders, but they certainly saw that Contador and Co. are at a higher level.

Already off the back

We’re just three days into the Vuelta and GC hopes for many have already been dashed.

More than a few names lost significant time Monday that will handicap their chances of winning this Vuelta.

Defending Vuelta champion Juanjo Cobo, who has been hobbled by a wisdom-tooth infection between the Tour de France and the start of the Vuelta, crossed the line 22nd at 50 seconds back.

With Valverde in the leader’s jersey and Cobo admitting that he’s not in top shape, his GC hopes could well be over.

Other big names to lose time were two-time Vuelta winner Denis Menchov (Katusha), 49th at 1:52 back, and Giro d’Italia podium man Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), 59th at 2:07 off the pace.

Another contender unable to stay with the blistering accelerations was Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), who ceded 3:23 and nearly all chances of victory.

More selection will be in the cards for Tuesday’s uphill finale to Valdezcaray in a climb that’s longer, but not as steep as Arrate.