Alberto Contador's rise up the General Classification continued today on the feared climb of the Sierra de la Pandera. Aggressive riding saw him move from ninth into eight place overall, despite an error inside the flamme rouge.
After the stage, he explained, “It was a very difficult day with a lot of wind, and I made a mistake in the last kilometer. I moved to the front too early and, as a result, I lost a few seconds on the finish line. But in general, it was a good stage. We have taken another small step forward, even if there are still quite a few riders in front of me.”
Contador's principle mountain helper Jarlinson Pantano showed similarly qualified optimism after his performance, that of his leader, and the team as a whole.
“It was a hard, fast stage,” he said. “The team pulled in the final part to try to win the stage with Alberto, and I think that he has continued to show that he is a contender for a podium place. He will certainly keep working for that goal.”
The stage start town of Écija is known as el sarten de España – Spain's frying pan – and in today's fourteenth stage, the heat was on, literally and metaphorically. In dazzling sunlight and sweltering heat, ten riders broke away early, building a maximum lead of seven and a half minutes.
The route featured two major obstacles, both of them inside the final 31 kilometers. The first was the Category Two Alto Valdepeñas de Jaén, a spectacularly steep ascent that hosted a stage finish in the 2013 Vuelta.
Pantano explained, “On the penultimate climb, we pulled, and Astana and Bahrain worked us, until the final section where Katusha took over, and the first big selection was made.”
I made a mistake in the last kilometer. I moved to the front too early and, as a result, I lost a few seconds on the finish line.
The final climb, the Sierra de la Pandera, started twelve kilometers from the finish line. At its foot, the Red Jersey group contained some forty riders. As the altitude quickened, the group thinned out until, as Pantano explained, “In the end, there were not many of us left. Alberto and I sat quite far back. As the pace increased, I tried to put Alberto as far forward as possible.”
With seven kilometers left, Pantano dropped away, his work done. Three kilometers later, climbing specialist Romain Bardet attacked from the dwindling group of favorites. Contador was part of the elite group of four who joined him seconds later.
A series of testing accelerations followed by Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), to which Contador responded.
“With Nibali, I didn't take too much responsibility because it was a very difficult climb with a lot of hairpins, and it was important not to waste too much strength.”
Lagging some lengths back, race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) did not respond immediately, although Contador explained, “I don't think Froome was in difficulty today. No one should be surprised by his way of racing. When he drops back a bit, it is because it is his way of climbing. It doesn't mean he is going badly.”
With 2.2 kilometers remaining, Froome closed in on the Contador group, with Stage 11 winner Miguel Ángel López (Astana) on his wheel. López immediately attacked, riding away to second place behind the sole breakaway survivor, Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), who had paced himself perfectly for the stage win.
Under the red kite, Contador led a group containing Nibali, Froome, Zakarin (Team Katusha - Alpecin) and Kelderman (Team Sunweb). Out maneuvered in the final accelerations, he conceded six seconds to them on the line, finishing the stage in seventh.
Despite the disappointment, Contador's recovery from his disastrous stage 3 to Andorra, which left him 30th overall, has been vertiginous. He climbed to 17th in Stage 8, moved up to 13th in Stage 9, rose to ninth place on Stage 11 and now stands eighth. And tomorrow's 129-kilometer stage into the towering Sierra Nevada mountains is ripe with potential for the Trek-Segafredo leader.
“It was a day of hard work for everybody, and we will see how we recover overnight. It could be a very, very difficult stage, and we will see what happens. If people take risks, the differences will be enormous.”