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Contador is well positioned in the tightening Vuelta GC race

Only one minute divides the leading four and Contador is the man to beat after Wednesday’s test against the clock

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PONTEVEDRA, Spain (VN) — If the Vuelta a España was already proving to be the most exciting GC battle of the season, things got even better following Wednesday’s 39km individual time trial in sunny Galicia.

Neither Chris Froome (Sky) nor Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) could deliver a knockout punch and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) proved they still have some fight in them. Just 58 second divides fourth-place Valverde to first-place Rodríguez, with Contador second, at one second back, and Froome hanging tough at 15 seconds adrift.

“This Vuelta couldn’t be tighter,” Valverde said. “It was a good course for (Rodríguez) and I to defend. Now comes the hard part. We’re still in the fight.”

On a day when Froome needed to hit it out of the ballpark, it was “Purito” Rodríguez that rode perhaps the TT of his life to defend the Vuelta’s red leader’s jersey. Though his lead is by the most slender of margins — one second — Rodríguez couldn’t have cared less.

“I am super happy. I gave everything and to still have the leader’s jersey is a huge bonus. I’ve made a huge step forward,” Rodríguez said after receiving kisses from the podium girls. “Having Contador behind by just one second is like having the devil on your ear. But it’s a big boost to keep the jersey. We’ll see what happens.”

Rodríguez’s performance — seventh, at 1:16 behind stage-winner Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) — reveals just how far he’s come in time trials. Just two years ago, he lost more than four minutes to eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali on a flat, power course in Ribera del Duero.

Wednesday’s sinuous route into Pontevedra — opening with flat roads, then a steep Cat. 3 climb at the midway point, followed by a tricky descent and technical roads to the finish line — was ideal for Rodríguez to limit the bleeding.

The Katusha captain lost most of his time in the opening third of the course. Once the climb started in earnest, however, he limited his losses to Contador and Froome, and miraculously managed to hang on to the red jersey he’s held since stage 4 at Valdezcaray.

That stage, when Valverde crashed in the echelons with 30km to go and lost the leader’s jersey and 55 seconds — just three seconds off the difference he’s at now — still haunts the Movistar rider. Valverde, too, rode an excellent time trial for fourth, at 1:08 back, and wonders what could have been.

“We are still in the fight, despite those 55 seconds at Valdezcaray,” Valverde said. “There’s nothing I can do about it (Valdezcaray) now. I can only look forward, but without that crash, perhaps I would still be leader. The most important thing is that we’re still in with a shot.”

Of the cuatros grandes, Froome seems to be the one on the back foot. On a day when everyone expected him to erase the differences to Rodríguez and grab the leader’s jersey, Froome struggled. Contador took some early gains and then piled it on during the climb.

Froome held tough, never throwing in the towel, but he was clearly not comfortable on the bike and was nowhere near the man he was in July and August, when he rode to second in the Tour de France and bronze in the Olympic time trial.

Froome erased time to Rodríguez, but lost precious seconds to Contador, slotting into third, at 15 seconds back.

“I thought I would have gone better today,” Froome admitted. “It was a very hard course. It wasn’t a flat, power course like we saw at the Tour. I was really suffering and I was almost at my end. I am still there. Just 15 or 16 seconds, that’s still close. The mountains will decide everything.”

With no more time trial kilometers ahead of them between here and Madrid, Froome is correct. Six mountaintop finales lie en route. It will be a battle to the end.

Contador was the day’s big winner despite losing out on the day’s prizes. The stage victory escaped his grasp and he let the leader’s jersey slip through his fingers by just one second, but the 2008 Vuelta champ takes confidence that his form is clearly growing when his rivals all seem to be hanging on.

With a string of three hard climbing stages looming in Asturias over the weekend — not to mention tomorrow’s steep, uphill finale — Contador knows that it will be him setting the tone of the Vuelta from here forward.

“I wanted to win the stage and take the jersey, but it just wasn’t possible,” Contador said at the line. “The most important thing is that the sensations are good.”

Without winning any of the day’s glory, Contador emerged Wednesday as the big favorite for overall victory.

Contador’s main rival remains Froome, but the Sky rider seems hobbled and is clearly not at the same strength he had in July or in last year’s Vuelta. Valverde is a tad too far back to seriously challenge Contador while Rodríguez will be a troublesome, yet manageable problem.

That’s all true, but only if Contador truly regains his step. So far, he has also seemed a touch off his best. Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t raced a long tour since last July. He’s clearly missing his coup de grace, but Contador insists the real Vuelta is only beginning — and that he’s ready.

“The Vuelta starts now. Up to today, the Vuelta has been like a series of one-day classics,” he said. “The mountains in Asturias are true mountains — long climbs, steep, where real differences can be made.”

Contador is hoping that one-second difference to Rodríguez evaporates and his 15-second lead to Froome turns into minutes before the Vuelta hits the next rest day, next Tuesday. Everyone else is hoping it will be a nail-biter all the way to Bola del Mundo.