Chris Froome (Team Sky) claimed first blood in his 2015 battle with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) by kicking off his season with Ruta del Sol victory.
Froome over-turned a 26-second deficit to the Spaniard, who had beaten him to stage three victory atop the Alto de Hazallanas, by soloing to victory on the Alto de Allanadas and then retaining a slender two-second overall lead on the final day.
It crowned a day of double success for Team Sky, after Geraint Thomas’ overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve, and gives Froome the early bragging rights ahead of his eagerly-anticipated match-up with Contador at the Tour de France.
Froome’s victory was all the more impressive for the way he bounced back from trailing the Spaniard, who Froome had admitted looked in better shape, with his stunning ride on stage four.
After team-mates Mikel Nieve and British champion Peter Kennaugh worked the bunch over with two big attacks, Froome burst away from his rivals as the summit of the Allanadas approached, with only Contador able to track the move.
Even El Pistolero – so impressive in winning the previous day – could not match Froome’s acceleration as, teeth-gritted, the Kenyan-born Brit upped his cadence and powered on alone up the road.
It capped a great turn-around for the Team Sky man who had conceded time to his rival on the opening day as he appeared to struggle to find his usual flowing rhythm in the time trial.
Contador followed up with a stinging attack on stage three of the race which left Froome unable to respond quickly enough.
A strong, solo counter-attack meant Froome limited his losses and – while Contador was celebrating his first victory of the season – it was that late effort which proved most telling in the end, setting the Team Sky man up for his decisive victory the following day.
It’s early days, of course, and the result in Spain will have little impact on who is standing on the top step of the podium at the Tour de France – but, nonetheless, it offered a tantalising glimpse into what to expect later in the season.
What can be said is that both Froome and Contador have hit the ground running this year, with Benat Intxausti – third at 2’38” – the only rider within three minutes of the pair overall at the Ruta del Sol.
Froome and Contador, who despite their competitive rivalry on the road have upmost respect for the other’s ability, are set to next do battle at Tirreno-Adriatico before Contador tackles the Giro d’Italia.
Both will then take their place alongside 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), reigning Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) on a fiercely competitive Tour de France start line.
The Ruta del Sol has given us a glimpse of the showdown to come.
Ruta del Sol 2015: general classification
1) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky – 21.21.14hrs
2) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo +2”
3) Benat Intxausti (ESP) – Movistar +2.38
4) Mikel Nieve (ESP) – Team Sky +3.05
5) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +3.13
6) Peter Kennaugh (GBR) – Team Sky +4.03
7) Nicolas Edet (FRA) – Cofidis +5.10
8) Kanstantsin Siutsou (BLR) – Team Sky +5.17
9) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – IAM Cycling +5.30
10) Bob Jungels (LUX) – Trek Factory Racing +5.50