Chris Froome climbed into the leader’s red jersey at the Vuelta a Espana for the first time since 2011 on Monday despite missing out on the stage three win to Vincenzo Nibali.
Four-time Grand Tour winner Nibali took the mountainous 158.5km ride from Prades to Andorra la Vella in 4hrs 01mins 22secs ahead of Spaniard David de la Cruz with Tour de France champion Froome in third.
However, that was enough to move the Briton into the overall lead, two seconds ahead of De la Cruz, Ireland’s Nicolas Roche and American Tejay van Garderen.
“It’s been a long time since I had the red jersey, it feels amazing to put it back on,” said Froome.
“To be in this position is something I’ve thought about for a long time and I worked really hard after the Tour.”
Froome is aiming to become just the third man in history to win the Tour de France and Vuelta in the same year after Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978).
And despite three second-placed finishes at the Vuelta, it is the first time he has led the race since his breakout Grand Tour when he played a supporting role for Bradley Wiggings in 2011.
With nine summit finishes to come over three gruelling weeks in searing Spanish summer heat, Froome believes it will be difficult to stay in front all the way to Madrid on September 10.
“It’s going to be really hard to keep it until the end, especially with the time bonuses out there,” he added.
“It’s only two seconds to the next group of riders. It’s still really close.
“I don’t expect to keep it til the end but I’m certainly gonna fight for it.”
– Contador struggles –
It was another disappointing day for three-time Vuelta winner Alberto Contador in his final race before retirement as he finished more than two minutes down on the leaders to trail Froome by 3mins 10secs overall.
“I don’t know what happened to me, I don’t know what it is down to, but I felt really flat,” said Contador.
“It was difficult just to save the day as much as possible.”
The rest of the general classification favorites finished together, as after a team time trial in the opening stage and a long flat ride from Nimes to Gruissan on Sunday, the race exploded into life as it passed from France into Andorra.
Nibali is one of the few contenders who missed the Tour de France. And the Italian looked to have the fresher legs as he headed a nine-man group including Froome, Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet, De la Cruz, Roche, Van Garderen, Esteban Chaves and Domenico Pozzovivo to the line.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to win some time and very happy to win the stage,” said Nibali.
Tuesday’s fourth stage sees the race finally enter Spain under heightened security measures following a pair of terrorist attacks in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.
The 198.2km ride from Escaldes to Tarragona finishes just 20 kilometers along the Mediterranean coast from Cambrils.