Quintana seizes Vuelta lead as Contador picks up steam

Nairo Quintana took command of the Spanish grand tour Sunday, but his rivals — including Alberto Contador — are right on his heels

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The dynamic of the Vuelta a España changed in more ways than one in Sunday’s thrilling uphill finale to Valdelinares. The weather went from Sahara-like heat to Belgian cool as the stage put the opening week of extreme weather behind the peloton for good.

After eight stages of survival, the real race for the overall seemed to click into gear in the final, rain-soaked kilometers on twisting roads to the finish-line tape. Gone were the preambles and the testing of legs. No more hiding in the pack. The real Vuelta began Sunday.

Sensing that Chris Froome (Sky) was struggling, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) bolted like a sling-shot out of the withering GC pack, leaving overnight leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the others choking on his rooster-tail of vapors ringing off his wheel. Giving chase was Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha), with the help of teammate Eduard Vorganov. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who had been melting under the Andalucían heat, also sprang to life, and the trio caught Contador on the line.

“It was another tense day, complicated by the rain, but I felt I had good legs, and I saw Froome at the back, and I went for it, even though I think I am still a little short of my best,” Contador said at the line. “I am happy, now it’s a question of recovering and already think about the time trial, which is a very important day. There is still a long way to go, and there’s never an easy day in this Vuelta.”

Quintana overtook the leader’s jersey from Valverde, but Contador reconfirmed his GC creds by slotting into second at just three seconds back to gain the momentum going into Monday’s rest day. Everyone else seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

“I was feeling better today, because I was really suffering in the heat of the first days. We kept the jersey on the team, and that was the most important,” said Quintana, who seized the leader’s jersey from Valverde. “It’s almost like we’re all tied at zero. The Vuelta is far from over.”

Eleven riders finished ahead of the attacking Contador, with Winner Anacona (Lampre-Merida) winning his first grand tour stage out of a huge, 31-man breakaway, but all eyes were on the GC pack.

Under heavy rain and much cooler temperatures, an ever-confident Contador attacked, and Valverde and Froome couldn’t follow. It was an impressive acceleration that revealed just how good Contador is feeling coming into the second half of the Vuelta.

“The truth is I couldn’t follow when Contador attacked,” admitted Valverde, who slipped to third at eight seconds back. “I stayed with Froome and tried to attack at the end. We’ve always said from the beginning that Nairo is the captain, and I am keeping my options alive. The hardest part of the Vuelta is still to come.”

As expected, the 8km climb provided glimpses of who could win and who will not win this Vuelta, but it certainly didn’t serve as a race-breaker.

The differences were minimal, yet Contador gained a valuable 23 seconds on the Froome group, and the stage helped to set a more established hierarchy within the pack.

Only 30 seconds separate Quintana from sixth-place Rodríguez, who is showing signs of regaining his trademark punchiness in the climbing finales. Anacona surged into the top-10, rising from 21st to fourth at nine seconds back, but he admitted he’s more interested in chasing stages. The pack certainly won’t be giving him any more rope in breakaways following his impressive breakaway victory Sunday.

Stacked up behind Rodríguez are another 10 riders within 1:49 of the leader’s jersey. The Vuelta is still wrapped very tight, but Contador is clearly gaining steam.

“I was at my max today,” said Robert Gesink (Belkin), who slotted into eighth overall. “The last climb was really hard. I just kept fighting.”

Contador, Quintana, Valverde, and Rodríguez look to have a little more kick in their legs, but Froome and Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) are among several riders who are still hanging in there, something Froome admitted after crossing the line Sunday.

“I think we’ve come to see that Contador is going extremely well. He’s gotten over his injuries pretty quickly, and he’s going well, as are Nairo and Rodríguez,” Froome said. “The usual guys we expected for the GC. It’s a huge fight here, and it’s going to be a big race all the way to the end. Every second here or there is going to count.”

The peloton enjoys its first of two rest days Monday, followed by Tuesday’s decisive individual time trial at Borja. Riders such as Tony Martin (Omega Pharma) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) will be fighting for the stage victory, but it could prove decisive in the overall classification.

The 36.7km time trial is considered pivotal in Froome’s chances to win the Vuelta, but even he admitted before the start of Sunday’s stage, he’s still not in top form.

“In the final I didn’t have the legs to follow the top guys when they went. But I think given where I’ve come from on the back of the Tour and the build-up into the race I’m really happy with how things have gone so far. I can definitely feel I’m starting to pick up that race rhythm back into my legs and I’m looking forward to the second half of this race,” Froome said. “It’s relatively short compared to time trials elsewhere. But I enjoy time trialing, and I’m hoping to make the most of it.”

Froome or Urán, who won a similar time trial at the Giro d’Italia in May, could take big gains, while riders like Rodríguez could lose even more time. Consistent performers such as Contador and Quintana should be able to defend, even if Quintana admits he might lose the leader’s jersey.

“I am not a specialist, but I usually don’t do so badly,” Quintana said. “Today’s results confirmed that I am in good condition to lead the team, but there is no debate, we have two leaders on the team, with Alejandro and myself. What’s important is that the team wins.”

Sunday’s stage revealed the Vuelta is still packed tight, and Quintana or anyone else in the top-10 could still win this thing.

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