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Each had hoped to end up top dog at the end of the stage, but only one of them was successful in pulling off the win. Tejay van Garderen played things just right on the climb of La Molina, the final ascent on the queen stage of the Volta a Catalunya, and soloed to victory ahead of Richie Porte (Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and the other GC contenders.
“I have very good memories of this race from last year,” van Garderen said, referring to what was his first WorldTour win on the queen stage of the 2014 race to Vallter 2000.
“I have an up-and-down relationship with this race. It was an unfortunate event yesterday with the crash. Luckily, I came away with minimal damage.”
Van Garderen went over a guardrail on Wednesday’s stage and fell several metres. He was fortunately unhurt, but lost almost 16 minutes as a result and dropped from 32nd to 104th overall.
He said that accident gave him additional drive to go for the win.
“I was really motivated for today,” he said. “I changed the tactic from trying to go for the classification and put everything into the stage. That was all I had in my mind today.”
Van Garderen’s move came in response to an attack by Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka. Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) initially tried to bridge but just before he did so, van Garderen burst clear of the group behind, caught and passed him and then pushed on past Kiryienka.
The latter stick to his wheel for some time, but then lost contact.
Behind, Alberto Contador made his own move to try to go for the stage. He too caught Kiryienka and inched closer to van Garderen, but was then caught again by Kiryienka, who had waited for Porte and brought him up to the Spaniard.
The Australian then put in an impressive surge inside the final kilometre and crossed the line three seconds off van Garderen and eight seconds ahead of Contador, Martin and Wilco Kelderman (Team LottoNL-Jumbo).
“I’m a little bit disappointed to take second on the stage,” he said after the stage. “Credit to Tejay, he attacked at the right moment. I needed to watch Alberto and Rigo a bit at that point but, in terms of how the day went, the team were fantastic.
He said that Kiryienka played a vital role. “When Alberto attacked on the final climb we had Kiry up the road. He got a bit of a gap initially but I never panicked. I was expecting he’d attack and I was happy to ride back to Kiry – who then rode as Kiry does – like a steamroller! I was coming back at Tejay but just came up a little short.”
Van Garderen’s timing was indeed immaculate; had Contador got up to him, it is likely the others would have done so too and his bid for stage glory would have been gone. However the buffer he built with his early surge was enough to fend off the chasers and earn him success.
Contador had looked at one point like the possible winner. Despite being caught and then dropped by Porte, he tried to see the positives.
“Despite the final result, I’m happy with my performance because my form keeps improving every day ahead of my goal, which is the Giro,” he said.
“The only thing I wish for is to stay healthy and avoid crashes. I focus on recovering and take every day as it comes.”
He said that the conditions on the ascent to La Molina made things difficult. “The last climb wasn’t tough enough and there was a strong headwind, which made it complicated to build a big gap,” he explained.
“I attacked before what I had initially planned because a number of riders started attacking and nobody was reacting. I paid the price for that in the last 300m of the stage.”
Bart De Clercq (Lotto Soudal) is now the new overall leader, 21 seconds clear of Porte. Wednesday’s winner Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) is third, 26 seconds back, with Martin fourth and Contador fifth.
The latter conceded it will be difficult to move in the general classification in the remaining stages, but he noted that he was just two seconds off the podium. “We all knew that in this race [that] bonus seconds would prove important.”
Although Contador professed himself satisfied, Porte felt he struck an important psychological blow with his finish.
“Today was a big boost in my morale heading into the Giro. Most of the favourites for that race are here and to distance them was great,” he said.
“I feel a bit like I’m flying under the radar at the moment without the attention of guys like Rigo and Alberto. But I’m really feeling ready to take my opportunity. I’m looking forward to May.”
He said that he will fight on until the end of the race. “It’s my goal to be as high on GC as possible,” Porte stated.
His display may also have marked him out as a potential co-leader in the Tour de France. For the second day running his team-mate Chris Froome suffered, with the Briton finishing 27 minutes 49 seconds back in 131st place.