Froome-Contador clash at Ruta del Sol reaffirms growing rivalry

Vuelta a Andalucia offers a first glimpse of what promises to be a thrilling season-long battle between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador

In today’s Twitterized, Instagrammed, instant-gratification world, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. That tendency played out over the past five days at the Ruta del Sol in what was a fantastic season-opening clash between Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky).

In the first-day time trial, Contador took eight seconds out of Froome, and some were quick to suggest that Froome’s season would be a bust. Two days later, when Contador blew the doors off Froome to take 19 seconds on a seven-kilometer climb, some were ready to crown Contador winner of the Tour de France in February. Less than 24 hours later, Froome wreaked his revenge, and just as quickly, the tide turned and it was Froome who was king of the hill.

There was no doubt that the Ruta battle was one of pride and determination for both Froome and Contador. Their growing rivalry is developing into one of the best in cycling history, and the five-day race across the mountains and plains of southern Spain was just the opening salvo of what should be an amazing 2015, but what are the realistic conclusions to take in February?

If you listen to the respective riders and teams, both walked away satisfied, even if Contador lost the jersey to Froome.

“I’m happy where I am at during this part of the early season. I am happy that I won a stage and my ride in the time trial, that shows that I am on the right track for my major goals,” Contador said Sunday. “It wouldn’t have changed anything if I had won, because I still need to concentrate on the preparation for the next goals.”

At Team Sky, there was quiet jubilation, especially following Froome’s big ride in Saturday’s mountaintop finale to deliver the double, with the stage win and the overall.

“It was a bit of a surprise that Chris also took the overall, because we were racing [Saturday] more thinking about the stage than the GC,” Sky sport director Dario Cioni told VeloNews. “It shows Chris is already in very good shape. We are pleased with how this race went.”

Sometimes the devil is in the details. In the three decisive moments in the battle between Contador and Froome, there were telling signs about what happened.

In the time trial at Coria del Rio on Wednesday, Contador took eight seconds on Froome, at one second per kilometer, a relatively large margin that, if extrapolated into a 40km course in a grand tour, could prove decisive. But even Contador quickly said one shouldn’t read too much into that difference. VeloNews rode along with UnitedHealthcare on an urban maze that was laden with speed bumps, traffic circles, and roads splashed with dust, gravel, and potholes. Froome, who was “blowing out the cobwebs,” admitted he didn’t take any risks at all, and Contador, being a better bike-handler, took the seconds in the corners, not the flats.

The second major battle was the longer, 7km run up the Alto de Hazallanas in the Sierra Nevada. Tinkoff-Saxo rode a textbook-perfect race in what was a dress rehearsal for the kinds of performances the squad hopes to deliver later this season, with former Giro winner Ivan Basso taking huge turns that blew apart the peloton. Many were surprised to see Froome out of the frame, but once again, with his crash-filled 2014 season still fresh in his memory, he wasn’t taking any risks on the narrow, high-speed, twisting approach to the final climb. Contador was impressive, but once Froome found his groove, he was trimming the gap, shaving 10 seconds off Contador’s advantage in the closing kilometers of the climb. Contador, too, seemed to go too fast out of the gate, and started to sputter near the top of the climb. As journalist Juan Gutiérrez pointed out, Contador climbed the Hazallanas summit 16 seconds slower than Chris Horner when the American won the 2013 Vuelta a España. That reveals that Contador is not anywhere near his peak.

In Saturday’s dramatic turn of events, it was Team Sky’s turn to put on a show, with Peter Kennaugh and Mikel Nieve both posting big digs to set up Froome. It was a cold, windy, and rainy day, and Froome was careful to keep eating throughout the rolling stage to keep his fuel levels on high. It seemed that Contador didn’t eat enough during the stage, and when Froome punched the accelerator, Contador didn’t have any gas in the tank. He followed, then stuttered, and tried his best to limit the damage. Gearing was also interesting, with Gutiérrez also pointing out that Froome rode 38×32, while Contador, who typically prefers harder gearing, was on 39×30.

When you pull back a little bit more, and look at the bigger picture, a few more things come clearly into focus.

First, it is apparent that both Froome and Contador are already on a high level, and entering the 2015 season after a solid winter of training and preparation for the season’s big battles. Contador spent three weeks training at altitude on Spain’s Canary islands while Froome came off a training camp in South Africa. While neither is in their peak condition, both came to race. In today’s peloton, it’s nearly impossible to catch up if a rider is already short of form. There’s room to tweak and improve moving toward the grand tours, but if a rider these days gets lazy in the winter, there’s almost no hope for major success. And during the five-day Ruta del Sol, Froome and Contador confirmed they’ve done the hard work.

Second, it sets the stage for more showdowns between the pair. Contador and Froome have both said that they consider the other the toughest rival they’ve ever faced, and each are intent are beating one another. Contador comes into 2015 bent on winning the Giro and Tour, a historic challenge that’s only been accomplished by seven riders in the history of the peloton. He wants to reconfirm his status as the peloton’s best grand tour rider as well as secure his place in history as one of the best. And Froome just as intensely wants to win another yellow jersey to ratify his 2013 victory.

Pull back a little more, and the peloton reveals its deepest, most contested field in years. Not only are Froome and Contador battling for supremacy, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) are right there at the same level. Behind them, there are another half-dozen nipping on their heels. The GC battles haven’t been this highly contested in years.

Their next big battle will be Tirreno-Adriatico (March 11-17), which should see the “Fab Four” lock horns for the first time in 2015. From there, both Froome and Contador look set to race the Volta a Catalunya, and then Froome will likely take on the Tour de Romandie, while Contador will turn his attention to the Giro.

In sharp contrast to the fireworks from Froome and Contador, Quintana and Nibali have been discreet so far this season. The 2014 Tour champ raced both the Dubai Tour and the Tour of Oman without making much of an impression as he eases into his yellow defense, while Quintana was third in his season debut at the Tour de San Luís in January, and crashed in the Colombian national championships, giving him injuries that kept him out of the Ruta.

It will be interesting to see how Contador comes out of the Giro. He will be the top favorite to win another pink jersey, though riders such as Richie Porte (Sky), Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick Step), and Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) promise to make it difficult for him. There is some skepticism inside the Sky bus that Contador could win the Giro, and still have the legs to challenge for the Tour.

While it can be tempting to read too much into the tea leaves of February, the Ruta del Sol did serve to confirm that Contador and Froome are both healthy, driven, and ambitious for 2015. Without a doubt, it will be an amazing ride all season long.