SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain, Sept 14, 2014 – When Alberto Contador climbed off his bicycle in floods of tears on the 10th stage of July’s Tour de France, his season seemed to be over.
The popular Spaniard had built his entire campaign around aiming to dethrone Chris Froome at the Grand Boucle and win the world’s greatest cycle race for a third time.
Within 24 hours he had been diagnosed with a broken leg from the crash on a rapid descent half an hour before he quit the Tour.
Contador’s season seemed in tatters — as was Froome’s, having also crashed out of the Tour five stages beforehand with a broken hand and wrist — but it wasn’t.
The Briton had immediately reset his focus and targeted the Vuelta but Contador’s doctor said he had no chance of making the start line for the Spanish event, despite his injury not needing an operation.
Yet barely six weeks after breaking his tibia, Contador was indeed there in Jerez for the opening team timetrial stage.
What’s more, he turned up in top form, finishing alongside Froome and Alejandro Valverde on the first mountain stage before gaining time on both the next time there was an uphill finish on stage nine.
A day later on stage 10, Contador took an impressive fourth place in the individual timetrial and snatched the leader’s red jersey, which he would never relinquish.
Crucially, he had a 1min 18sec lead over Froome at that stage, although there were several mountain stages of varying difficulty to come.
Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rigoberto Uran and even young Italian hope Fabio Aru were still all in contention at that point, although Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana, who had crashed on the time trial and lost 4min, would leave the race the next day after hitting the deck a second time.
Uran, runner-up in the Giro the last two years behind Vincenzo Nibali — the current Tour champion — and Quintana, would also quit with bronchitis after a disastrous 16th stage in which he dropped from sixth to 16th overall having lost more than 15min.
– Crucial battles –
That stage 16 was one of two crucial ones that demonstrated in a ‘mano a mano’ battle with Froome that Contador could come out on top.
That stage 16 to La Farrapona and the penultimate 20th stage to Puerto de Ancares, saw a Froome acceleration drop everyone else in the race, except Contador.
Both times the 31-year-old Spaniard doggedly hung onto Froome’s back wheel and resisted the 2013 Tour winner’s attempts to distance him.
And in both cases, Contador jumped away in the final kilometre to win by 15sec and 16sec.
Froome had to admit that Contador has simply been stronger at this race, although he pointed out that his preparation had not been ideal due to his own fractures.
The Vuelta may not command the same respect as the Tour — and one look at the press room, barely a 10th of the size of the Tour’s, confirms that — but if anything the finishing field in this race was far stronger than that at the Tour.
The Tour podium included two riders who had never before even finished on a Grand Tour podium, with only Nibali, completing a full house of Grand Tour wins, bucking that trend.
But the Vuelta podium contained three Grand Tour winners with eight victories between them and a further eight podiums on top of that.
The Tour may be the harder race but winning the Vuelta this year may very well have meant more.
And for Contador, it continued a remarkable record. The Tinkoff-Saxo leader has started nine Grand Tours, finishing eight and winning six of them.
Even in the three Grand Tours that were wiped from his record over a doping infraction that saw him banned for two years, he won two of them and finished fifth in the other.
Despite the emergence of the likes of Froome, 29, Nibali, 29, and Quintana, 24, Contador remains a champion amongst his peers.