Froome in command at Vuelta as Contador weighs between GC fight and stage win

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Three riders at this year’s Vuelta a España are Tour de France winners. Two of them have previously won the Vuelta, while the other is poised to win his first.

That’s the situation among the biggest Grand Tour stars of the 2017 Vuelta a España on the race’s first race day in Alicante, with Chris Froome (Team Sky) leading the general classification since Stage 3. A three-time runner-up at the Vuelta, Froome, 32, has shown no vulnerabilities in nine days of racing; he leads Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) by 26 seconds, with no other riders within one minute of the Tour de France champion.

Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who has won all three of pro cycling’s Grand Tours, sits fourth overall, 1:17 behind Froome, and 12 seconds behind Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing).

Meanwhile, Spanish hero Alberto Contador — who has won all three Grand Tours multiple times — has bounced back spectacularly after a stomach bug saw him lose 2:33 minutes on Stage 3 in Andorra. Contador, 34, was the only GC contender to stick with Froome on the summit finish of Xorret de Catí on Stage 8, with the two men crossing the finish line together, 17 seconds ahead of their rivals.

On one end there is Froome, who is, if not at the peak of his powers, then close to it, inching closer to adding a Vuelta title to his impressive four Tour victories. “I’m going to take advantage of it while my legs are feeling good and it makes sense for me to keep pushing,” Froome said after Stage 8.

At the other end, there is Contador, in his final race, on home soil, hoping to cross the finish line with his arms raised one last time. “That I could follow Froome is a sign that I am good, but we haven’t tackle a really long climb yet,” Contador said on Monday’s rest day. “It’s still a pity that I lost time in Andorra, but we will keep taking this Vuelta day by day, and keep enjoying it. I feel quite well and, in general, I can say that normally I feel better every day.”

And in the middle there is Nibali, 32, winner on Stage 3 where Froome took the leader’s jersey. The cagey Italian had a mixed opening week, but is known for coming on strong in the final week of Grand Tours.

“I feel good, but it was difficult to stay with Froome, and that’s all there is to it,” Nibali told a group of reporters after Stage 8. “The level of the rivals here is very high, the race is going really fast every day, maybe faster even than the Tour.”

And then there’s Chaves, the wildcard. Though he’s never won a Grand Tour, the Colombian reached the podium at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta last year at age 26.

Returning from a knee injury that derailed the first half of his season, Chaves suffered through his Tour de France debut last month, but has shown sparking form in Spain and looks positioned to match or improve upon his third-place finish last year. How his lack of racing between February and June will impact him in the final week of the race remains to be seen.

Contador has proven he can climb with Froome, but his prospects of reaching the final GC podium are slim, and he’s running out of opportunities to win a race in his final season.

Interestingly, though he sits 13th overall at 3:32, Contador has not ruled out fighting for the general classification — which could well hamper his ability to go clear of GC rivals for a stage win.

Though he’s finished on the GC podium at four stage races this year —  Vuelta a Andalucia, Paris-Nice, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and Vuelta al Pais Vasco — Contador has not yet won a race in 2017. And he’s running out of opportunities.

“I think battling for a stage win and the GC are compatible,” Contador said. “I don’t want to discard either of them. We’ll see as the race progresses day by day. I don’t want to rule out either option.”

Five uphill finishes and a 40km time trial remain — and at some point, it would appear likely that Contador would need to choose between a podium position in Madrid and a final stage victory in front of his adoring Spanish fans.

“In principle, in theory, the climbs that lie ahead of us should be better for me, no?” Contador said. “But, look, I think, first of all, I’d have to pass all the riders who are ahead of me, and there are a lot of them. It’s true that, every day except yesterday, I’ve made up time on all my rivals. So that’s good. And I think that, in the time trial, I can do pretty will compared with most of them too. So it’s a matter of trying to get as close as possible and into the best possible position with respect to Froome.”

Like Contador, Froome had not won a road race in 2017 prior to his summit finish victory Sunday at Cumbre del Sol, where Contador finished sixth, 12 seconds back. He’d stood on the top step of the Tour podium in Paris, but had not fully stamped his authority at any point in the season. Though he leads by only 36 seconds, it’s worth remembering that his Tour win came with just a 54-second lead over Chaves’ pal Rigoberto Uran. It’s also worth remembering that Froome is historically better in the time trial than Chaves, Nibali, Contador, and every other major GC contender.

“The way the team has handled the pressure of defending the lead so early on has been fantastic, and the guys deserve a lot of credit for that,” Froome said. “The hardest days are definitely still to come at this Vuelta, but to be in this position at this stage of the race is great for us.”

“I’ve said before I feel like I have unfinished business here and so we’ll be giving it everything and aiming for that overall victory in Madrid,” Froome added.

Regardless of how he finishes, Contador said the finality of this Tour of Spain hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“What I am only realizing now, bit by bit, is what I have achieved over the years,” he said. “Until now, I’ve only ever focused on this race, the next race, and the one after that. I’ve never stopped to think about this or that race, or moments I’ve lived through. Perhaps now, in the race, with all this public affection, you start thinking about what your sporting career has amounted to: the sheer quantity of video footage that is around, to remind you of many of the most important moments of your career.

“And the truth is, it makes you proud. I’m really amazed by all the displays of gratitude around the bus. My teammates are immensely surprised too, because there isn’t space to insert a sheet of paper around the bus, and it is a memory that will always stay with me.”

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