Alberto Contador launched seven attacks on the 5km climb of Arrate in the Vuelta a Espana on Monday, but he could not shake off stage three winner and new overall leader Alejandro Valverde.
Racing for the first time since a doping suspension, the Spaniard’s repeated accelerations on Arrate’s tree-lined slopes, famous as a sanctuary for the rare Azpi Gorri shaggy goats, helped the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank rider shred the lead group to just four riders, but Movistar’s Valverde overpowered the lead group on the Tour’s first mountain-top finish, narrowly beating another Spaniard, Joaquim Rodriguez, with Britain’s Chris Froome third and Contador fourth.
Valverde took an 18-second advantage over his teammate Benat Intxausti into the fourth stage, with Rodriguez third, 19 seconds behind, Froome fourth, a second further back, and Contador fifth, 24 seconds off the pace.
In the first major shakeup of la Vuelta’s main contenders, last year’s winner Juan Jose Cobo lost 50 seconds on the mountain, whilst Russia’s Denis Menchov, who won the title in 2005 and 2007, fell back almost two minutes.
“It’s incredibly difficult to beat a rider like Rodriguez, he deserved the win as much as me, but maybe he was a little bit over-confident and I just managed to do it,” Valverde told reporters. “Movistar have won the opening team time trial and this stage as well, we’ve kept the lead for the last three days, we can be more than happy with what we’ve achieved.”
Valverde, who himself returned to competitive cycling in January this year after serving a two-year doping ban, said he was delighted to be in front, particularly considering he had not originally intended to start the race at all.
“I’ll try and keep going in the lead as far as I can, but after such a great start to the race, anything we get from here on is a bonus,” he said.
Contador clearly made the biggest impression on Valverde up the Arrate, but Froome was identified as the major threat.
“Contador was definitely the strongest, but Rodriguez and I could get back up to him every time he attacked,” Valverde said. “It [the climb] cost Froome a little bit, but with that time trial in the second week it’s going to be very difficult to keep him under control.”
Dropped briefly by Contador, but each time able to claw his way back, Froome said that the stage had been about damage control.
“We have some really hard stages with mountains coming up, so today was not a day to push too hard,” the 27-year-old said. “I didn’t see any need to sprint off to close those gaps down, I was trying to control him [Contador] at my own speed. It was a bit of an unknown coming here after the Tour [de France] and the Olympics, the legs are doing all right, so we should be in for a good few weeks of racing.”
The race finishes on Sept. 9 in Madrid.