VN Archives – Return of the King: Contador wins a Vuelta battle that goes down to the wire
For Alberto Contador, anything less than victory at the 2012 Vuelta a España would have been unacceptable. Contador’s road back from his controversial clenbuterol ban was intensely personal, just as it was incredibly vital to Spanish cycling. As the Spanish economy teetered on collapse, the Vuelta needed Contador just as much as he needed the win.
The “Pistolero del Pinto” remains Spain’s top cyclist, despite sitting out much of 2012 due to his backdated two-year racing ban.
Spanish fans and media could not care less. They love Contador because he attacks — and more often than not, he wins. Despite having less than a week of racing in his legs, Contador picked up right where he left off, attacking straight out of the gate in his first grand tour since having his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d’Italia victories stripped away. Publicly, Contador said anger and revenge didn’t fuel him. Yeah, right.
“Alberto wants to win the Vuelta more than anything,” said Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank teammate Benjamín Noval. “That’s all he’s been training for.” But something strange was happening as a climb-heavy Vuelta unfolded across a spectacular course in northern Spain. At Arrate in the Basque Country, then Andorra, and again at Cuitu Negru in Asturias, Contador’s once-lethal attacks lacked their knockout punch. Rather than leaving his rivals choking on his fumes, his rivals seemed to have his number. More than two weeks into the Vuelta, Contador was exasperated.
The expected challenge from Chris Froome (Sky) petered out due to the Tour runner-up’s tiring legs, but another rival perplexed Contador. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was carefully tending a 28-second margin with just five days left to race. “If I can take the red leader’s jersey to Bola del Mundo, perhaps I can begin to dream of winning this Vuelta,” said Rodríguez at his rest-day press conference.
“I know Alberto is capable of anything. We must remain vigilant.” Perhaps Contador and Saxo-Tinkoff boss Bjarne Riis were taking notes. At that point in the Vuelta, Rodríguez was able to answer each of Contador’s attacks. The climbs were so steep — the Mirado de Ezaro in stage 13 featured ramps as steep as 30 percent — that the Vuelta was almost like a series of Flèche Wallonne finishes stacked one after another. Contador couldn’t shake Rodríguez on the steeps, and then, adding insult to injury, “Purito” would counter with morale-boosting jabs to pick up valuable finish-line time bonuses. Time was running out for Contador.
He knew that if he waited until the final climb at Bola del Mundo on the penultimate stage, another brutally hard climb, ideal for Rodríguez’s power jets, it might be too late. Little did anyone know that the easiest climb of the 10 summit finales in a wild, thoroughly entertaining Vuelta would set the trap for Rodríguez’s demise and provide the springboard for Contador’s rebirth.
Froome’s hard lessons
The 67th Vuelta started with the highly anticipated showdown between Contador and Froome, the first time the two have squared off as GC contenders.
Long before Rodríguez emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 for Contador, it was Froome who posed the biggest threat. Hot off second at the Tour and bronze in the Olympic time trial, Froome was quietly boasting he was coming to the Vuelta to “improve on last year’s result.” Last year Froome finished second by an excruciating 13 seconds to Juanjo Cobo (who would serve as a waterboy at Movistar after fading from contention).
The tall, frail, Kenyanborn rider seemed oddly out of place among the Spanish-heavy Vuelta, where Contador, Rodríguez, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) would hog the center of the race. Froome was relishing his chance to lead Team Sky outright. Tour champ Bradley Wiggins was racing the Tour of Britain and staying clear of Spain, giving Froome an open shot to make a run for victory. Froome’s inexperience in the hot seat soon became evident in what erupted as the nastiest dispute of the entire race. With strong crosswinds buffeting the peloton in stage 4, Team Sky pressed to the front. According to riders who saw it in the front row, it was the surging mass of Sky riders cutting across the nose of the bunch that provoked a crash right at the front of the pack.
Among the nearly 25 riders hitting the ground was race leader Valverde. Sky had already made its surge to break the pack into echelons and got help from Katusha and BMC. Chaos soon erupted when it became obvious that Valverde was on the ground and was isolated four groups back. None of Sky’s top brass was at the race. David Brailsford and Sean Yates were cooling their jets after directing the team to Tour glory.
Manning the lead sport director’s car was inexperienced ex-pro Nicolas Portal. A nice guy, Portal soon found himself the subject of ire from Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzue after Valverde ceded 55 seconds and the leader’s jersey.
“What they did today was cowardly,” Unzue seethed. “Not only did they provoke the crash, they attacked when the race leader was down. It was unsportsmanlike at best. I am disgusted.” Neither Froome nor Portal had the heft of influence in the bunch to make the call to ease up on the gas. But no one else did either. Quietly in the same move were Rodríguez and Contador, who avoided the growing media firestorm that was directed at Froome. Froome sharply defended the team’s action the next morning, telling Velo, “Crashes happen in echelons. If we had not taken the initiative, then someone else would have and it would have been us who were on the back foot.”
The fatigue of a long season soon became evident. Froome was staying close in the opening climbs, but he was slowly losing ground. Over the course of the second week, Froome would stay in second place, but lose 30 seconds to Rodríguez on time bonuses and late-stage summit kicks.
“I can feel my legs don’t have the same punch they did in July,” Froome confided. “I suppose that’s natural. I haven’t had a true block of training since June.” Froome was still holding out hope. He survived the first 10 days hanging in second place, just 53 seconds behind Rodríguez and a few precious seconds ahead of Contador and Valverde going into the Vuelta’s lone individual time trial.
The lumpy 40km course should have catapulted Froome into the leader’s jersey. Instead, it confirmed that he was far from his July form. Though he showed his class by finishing third in the stage, Froome slipped to third overall at 16 seconds back, with Rodríguez keeping red by one miraculous second to Contador. From there, Froome was just fighting to hang on to Madrid; he would eventually end up in fourth on GC.
Rather than be bitter or disappointed about the Vuelta, Froome tried to take positives out of three weeks of intense racing. “There are a huge amount of positives I can take away from this experience,” Froome told Velo. “Leading the team, that’s something I’ve never done before. And racing against Contador was interesting. Actually being on Contador’s wheel when he kicks, to feel what that’s like and then having to bridge to his wheel and knowing what that’s like. It’s something I would never be able to learn by watching on a screen or reading online. It’s something I had to feel for myself and it’s something that I will be able to use to prepare for the future.”
For Froome, the Vuelta turned into an albatross. Fourth, however, revealed how much class he truly carries in his engine. That battle that everyone was looking forward to at the Vuelta might come to fruition next July. Depending on the course, the Tour could well turn into a battle of Contador versus Froome. The Vuelta provided a few tantalizing clues about what lies in store.