Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) called out his opponents and then raised the stakes with a series of stinging attacks on the concluding first category climb of the Alto de Arrate. However, Alejandro Valverde won the final sprint – just – to take both the stage and the overall lead from Movistar teammate Jonathan Castroviejo.
An eight-man break including BMC’s Philippe Gilbert gained four minutes over the Movistar-led peloton but was reeled in at the base of the final climb. Sky and Saxo Bank quickly reduced the peloton to about 25 riders as Castroviejo (expectedly) and defending champion Juan Jose Cobo (less expectedly) were among the early casualties to be tailed off by the high tempo.
With the big favourites massing at the front, Valverde made the first serious attack inside the 5km mark – about 3km from the summit. Contador, dancing on the pedals in his familiar style, led the chase, dragging Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Chris Froome (Sky) along with him, while Euskaltel’s Igor Anton led the pack back up to the quartet when they relaxed the pace.
A series of rapid-fire attacks followed. The next two were launched by Contador. In each case Rodriguez and Valverde were first to respond, with Froome bridging his way back more steadily. Then Anton had a go, only for Contador to cover him immediately. About 500 metres from the summit Contador kicked again, and this was enough to permanently separate the lead four from their pursuers.
On the run to the finish Contador made one final, unsuccessful acceleration just before the 1km flag. It was left to Rodriguez and Valverde to contest the win and the accompanying bonus 12 seconds. Rodriguez was forced to lead out, Valverde came back at him, and in the end it required a photo finish to determine that the Movistar man had done just enough. Froome edged out Contador for third and the final four bonus seconds, leaving the Spaniard empty-handed for his efforts. The pack containing most of the other contenders, including Anton, Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink, AG2R’s Nicolas Roche and Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky arrived six seconds later.
VeloVoices rider of the day
Not a difficult selection today, as Alberto Contador attacked both the final climb and the flat/downhill run-in to the finish with aggression and panache to force a decisive selection over the top of the Arrate. I counted six distinct accelerations in the final 5km – two to counter attacks by Valverde and Anton, and four explosive attacks of his own. Only Valverde and Rodriguez were able to cover these comfortably, Froome a little less so, with everyone else left trailing in his wake.
Or, as ITV’s redoubtable Ned Boulting put it:
Contador keeps running up to them, twisting their ears, poking them in the eye, and then running off.
— Ned Boulting (@nedboulting) August 20, 2012
It’s difficult to know whether he possesses sufficient form to sustain such attacks and make them stick on the longer climbs to come. And it’s also arguable that his repeated attacks here ultimately cost him at least four bonus seconds in the final sprint which could prove costly later in the race. But it was mighty entertaining stuff to watch.
What a great opening mountain stage this was, in a Vuelta which is packed full of climbs. And this was just a taster of what is to come – not one of the true alta montaña, and not really a true summit finish, with the top of the climb coming nearly 2km from the end. We can expect even more spectacular finishes in the days to come. After a by-the-numbers sprint stage yesterday it finally feels like the race proper has finally started. Bring it on.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the top four here will be the top four in Madrid. Only six seconds may have separated them from the chasing pack – a heartbeat in the context of the overall race, but a lifetime in terms of laying down a marker for the next three weeks. Nonetheless, things may be very different on the longer, higher climbs to come, where stamina and conditioning may find out those who have already raced heavily this season (e.g. Froome) or those who have not raced enough (e.g. Contador).
We shouldn’t read too much into today’s finish – but we can certainly read something from it. We discovered that Contador still has his trademark explosiveness, but can he sustain it on the long climbs and over three weeks? Or was today’s succession of ultimately futile attacks all for show, in the same way Cadel Evans‘ attacking efforts at the Tour were? Tomorrow’s concluding 13.4km climb will give us a better indication of Contador’s stamina.
What is also apparent is that the bonus seconds available for the top three finishers on each stage could ultimately prove important. A matter of millimetres between Valverde and Rodriguez accounted for a swing of eight seconds today, and although Contador finished on the same time as the three riders in front of him, he lost time to all of them. Now multiply that across all the summit finishes in this race, and the ability to sprint at the end of a tough climb could easily account for as much as a minute by the end of the race. Juan Jose Cobo‘s winning advantage last year? 13 seconds. I’m just saying …
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