If you watched Stage 8 of the Vuelta a Espania on Saturday you saw something amazing. The stage featured a summit finish atop the Collada de la Gallina in Andorra. Alberto Contador launched a furious attack and opened up a large gap on his GC rivals Valverde, Rodriguez and Froome. He was on his way to a stage victory that included a time gap over his rivals plus the first-place-finish time bonus. It didn’t work out that way. Valverde and Rodriguez caught him in the last 100 meters and Contador finished third. I can’t remember ever having seen Contador getting caught and passed on a summit finish after he broke away. What happened?
Only Contador knows the answer to that question but here’s what it looked like to someone watching the race on TV. In an earlier post on hill climbing techniques I wrote that a goal to strive for when climbing is to maintain a steady effort over the entire climb. When the gradient steepens, you drop down into a smaller gear; when the gradient relaxes, you gear up into a higher gear. Shifting into a higher gear on a climb may seem counter intuitive and mentally it can be hard to do. This is especially true at or near the top of the climb when your legs are screaming in agony and your oxygen debt is high. When the gradient relaxes it brings relief from the suffering and you welcome the relief.
If you watch the video of the last 100 meters of the Collada de la Gallina finish it looks like Contador didn’t shift up into a higher gear when the gradient relaxed near the top of the climb. He’s spinning like mad when he looks over his shoulder and sees Valverde and Rodriguez closing on him and he’s in too small a gear to generate enough power to accelerate away from his pursuers. Valverde and Rodriguez are in a bigger gear and have too much speed built up for Contador to match. It looked like Contador thought he had the stage won (as did everyone watching except Valverde and Rodriguez), accepted the relief when the gradient relaxed, and paid the price.
Contador is much too talented and skilled a rider to either not know how to finish a climb or be incapable of finishing a climb. I think he just made a mistake. Did he make the mistake because he hasn’t been riding in competition while he served out his suspension? I don’t know. I do know this, though. If you want to be the rider that maintains a strong and steady effort to the top and over the top of a climb when it counts, you have to ride like that on the climbs when it doesn’t count.