Tour of Spain: Chris Froome closes on leader but Alberto Contador hits higher gear

 

Pontevedra

Chris Froome's bid to become Britain's first ever winner of the Tour of Spain remains very much alive after yesterday's 39.5km (25-mile) time trial when he closed the gap on the overall race leader Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain from 53 seconds to a mere 16sec.

Regrettably the good news stopped there for Froome. While Rodriguez's hold on the lead is proving more tenacious than anybody – including the Spaniard himself – had expected, Froome actually slipped from second to third in the general classification as one of the world's best stage racers, Alberto Contador, overhauled him to move to within one second of Rodriguez.

Contador had struggled on one of the hillier stages last week but seemed to be getting stronger on Saturday's mountain-top finish at Andorra, where he dropped Froome close to the summit. It is now a question of whether Contador's form keeps on improving.

"There's everything to play for – with that little time between the top three, it's not over by any means," Froome insisted, after finishing a course apparently designed by someone allergic to straight roads and determined to keep the riders' concentration at an absolute maximum throughout.

Yesterday could not have been more different from the relatively straightforward Olympic time-trial course where Froome netted a bronze medal this month. The 25 miles first twisted and turned its way through a maze of Galician coastal backroads, then climbed steadily for six miles to the summit of the Monte Grove climb and finally plunged down 1,500 feet on a spine-chillingly narrow and winding lane to the fishing port of Pontevedra.

"I was struggling at times on the climb, I couldn't keep the speed I wanted and I didn't feel super" the Sky rider, who finished in third, 39sec behind the Swedish time-trial specialist Fredrik Kessiakoff, with Contador 22sec ahead of the Briton.

"So I'm disappointed because I wanted to win, but I have no regrets, I did the best I could throughout. And it's still very close overall."

Froome at least is hardened to this sort of nail-bitingly tight scenario at the top of a Grand Tour hierarchy, given that he lost the Tour of Spain last year by a mere 13sec to a local rider, Juan Jose Cobo. But British hopes that Froome would open up a big gap yesterday on his three Spanish opponents – Rodriguez, Contador and Alejandro Valverde – were sadly misplaced.

Instead, Rodriguez put up a surprisingly strong defence of his overall lead while Contador managed, slowly but surely, to put those 22sec between himself and Froome. Rodriguez is a fine climber so was suited by yesterday's course and was delighted to finish just 59sec behind Contador.

As a result, the Vuelta a Espana has now developed from what was expected, before yesterday's time trial, to be a straight two-way fight between Froome and Contador, on paper the better performers against the clock, to a three-sided battle with Rodriguez. And as Froome pointed out, Valverde, who is just 59sec behind, cannot be ruled out either.

Today's stage to the Mirador de Ezaro climb, a viciously steep two-mile ascent in a remote corner of north-west Galicia, could start to clarify the overall classification. But it is more likely that the race will have to wait until it reaches the three successive high mountain stages in Galicia and Asturias at the weekend for a definitive hierarchy to emerge.

"The Tour of Spain has only just begun," Contador, the top stage racer of the last five years, pronounced solemnly after yesterday's action. "And we're moving into my terrain." Froome, however, remains determined to give him, and the other Spaniards, a serious run for their money.

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