Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta is the final round of Contador vs. Froome

Contador is down three minutes after faltering early, but the Spanish star Contador will light up Vuelta in final race against Froome.

XORRET DE CATI, Spain (VN) — The Vuelta a España’s version of Mayweather vs. McGregor isn’t shaping up how everyone was hoping it would.

The hyped final matchup between cycling’s two best active grand tour riders lost steam early. Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) ceded too much time in the early rounds on stage 3. The Spanish superstar is now holding out hope for the miracle late-round knock-out punch.

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On Saturday, proud Contador was the only rival who could stay with Chris Froome (Sky) in the explosive finale on a hot, challenging stage that saw Froome tighten his grip on red. Contador followed Froome’s vicious attack that gapped all the other major GC rivals. Froome, meanwhile, is picking up key seconds here and there to win this Vuelta one jab at a time. He now leads Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) by 28 seconds.

Though Contador still trails by a significant amount of time — 17th at 3:01 back — Froome knows that Contador packs the most dangerous punch in the pack.

“Alberto is not here to ride around Spain to give ‘selfies’ and sign autographs. He’s here to win,” Froome said. “He had a few rough days in Andorra, but he’s making up for that now, and putting me under pressure. As a team, we are going to have to be very attentive to make sure something like last year doesn’t happen again.”

The shadow of last year’s collapse on the road to Formigal — when Contador orchestrated an on-the-road coup that eventually helped Nairo Quintana (Movistar) win last year’s Vuelta at Froome’s expense — weighs heavily on Sky and Froome.

For Froome, this Vuelta is about avoiding the mistakes of last year that cost him the victory. He’s doing everything he can to finally win the Spanish tour after three second places since 2011.

The four-time Tour de France champion tweaked his training schedule for 2017 to hit peak form later in the season in order to have more in the tank for the Vuelta. Sky brought a Tour de France-level team to protect his flanks. Froome spent time at altitude before the Vuelta for the first time. And the entire team is racing to win.

“We’ve seen in the past how fast things can change,” Froome said. “I want to take time where I can, and keep pushing on. I just feel good. Why not push on and race when I feel good?”

Froome and Team Sky will leave nothing to chance when it comes to Contador.

Even at more than three minutes back, they know how dangerous Contador can be. Don’t expect Froome to give him too much rope at any point of this race.

Having Contador so far back can clearly work to Froome’s advantage. The Spanish superstar will keep on attacking to try to get back into the GC frame as well as to try to win a stage. Froome can ride his coattails all the way to Madrid.

Contador, meanwhile, is at once emboldened and frustrated by how this Vuelta has unfolded. His bad day in Andorra in stage 3 all but assures that he won’t be racing for the win, but as he continues to demonstrate, he vows to go down swinging.

“Alberto know we have to be lucky to be able to win, but let’s hope that something happens or Froome cracks,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Stephen De Jongh. “It’s important that Contador keeps fighting. He was so motivated to do well in this Vuelta.”

After his uneven start, Contador is looking like the strongest among Froome’s many rivals. At least for now.

“Actually today I wasn’t as agile as I was hoping for, but I chose to be aggressive,” Contador said. “It’s a shame about [losing time] in Andorra. I am feeling better, but I still have to show it in the days to come. I am going to be hunting for a stage. For the rest, we’ll take it day by day.”

Froome’s other rivals are impressed. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) lost another 17 seconds to Froome but climbed in fourth at 53 seconds back. The exasperated Italian said at the finish line Saturday that Froome looks stronger than he did at the Tour.