Blazin' Saddles

The epic Contador picture that says Bert is back to his best at La Vuelta

Blazin' Saddles

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Contador and Rodriguez at La Vuelta (AFP)

Contador and Rodriguez at La Vuelta (AFP)

With the Vuelta a Espana heading into the first rest day with four riders poised within nine seconds at the top, it's time to put into practice the old adage that a picture says one-thousand words.

The picture in question is a quite superb capture of Spaniards Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez crossing the finish line on the rain-swept summit of Valdelinares at the conclusion of Sunday's stage nine, won by Colombian winner Winner Anacona of Lampre-Merida.

Using Dan Martin's attack with three kilometres remaining as a springboard, Contador surged clear of his GC rivals to open up a gap over the streamlined main pack - which until that point had been controlled quite ominously by Chris Froome's Sky team-mates.

Contador's stinging attack on only the race's second (of eight) summit finishes had both Froome and red jersey Alejandro Valverde reeling. Only race favourite Nairo Quintana and that man Rodriguez were able to reel him in, the trio crossing the line 2:16 down on Anacona and 23 seconds ahead of a group containing Valverde, Froome, Martin, Fabio Aru and Rigoberto Uran.

And, well, the picture shows the moment Contador looks over his shoulder to survey the damage, catching the eye of Rodriguez who returns the gaze of his compatriot with a mixture of bewilderment, shock and awe.

"What was I thinking at that moment?" Rodriguez asked his followers when he posted a black-and-white version of the photo on Twitter later that evening.

Viewed independently and out of context, Rodriguez seems to be pulling the same kind of face that many red-blooded males might make to a friend moments after the passing of a beautiful woman.

But although there's undoubtedly an element of "Ooo, suits you, sir!" in Purito's pursed lips, it's safe to say that not even the prettiest of podium girls would have made such an impression in all that rain. Given the physical exertions leading directly up to the snapshot, it's clear that the fairer sex was not on Purito's mind - nor is his gurning a repulsed reaction to Contador breaking wind (another suggestion made on Twitter).

To Blazin' Saddles, Rodriguez's face betrays a combination of disbelief and respect. The arched eyebrows, the creased forehead and the rounded, exhaling mouth is the visual articulation of a question along the lines of "What the hell was that all about?" or "Where did that come from?".

In fact, more than "what?" and "where?" there's an element of "how?".

For let us not forget, the man who blew the race apart and took both Quintana and Rodriguez to the very limit of their powers was a man who, six weeks previously, broke his leg during the Tour de France.

As such, this suggested caption from one of Rodriguez's followers hits the nail on the head - while using a delightful adjective for the state of Contador's recent injury: "Something like, 'Damn, kid, I thought you were meant to have a pureed knee...'."

Rodriguez's expression was an extension of the look that many riders in the gruppetto would have pulled when they saw a bloodied Contador soar past them on the ascent of the Col du Platzerwasel during stage 10 of the Tour - oblivious, right then (and like him), to the fractured shin hidden below all those bandages.

It was only a month or so ago, in late July, that Contador ruled himself out of contention for the Vuelta, claiming the heeling process was "complicated" and that he still wasn't back in the saddle. His spokesman echoed Contador's statement, claiming the Spaniard "doesn't want to be at the Vuelta just to be there".

And yet at the same time, Contador was allegedly spotted dancing up the mountains near Lugano - suggesting he had underplayed his recovery somewhat. Soon, Contador admitted that he was on course to recover "in record time" thanks to the work of the specialists treating him - even if he claimed that it wasn't until a week before the start in Jerez that he rode without knee pain while training.

"Perhaps in the last week I can be fighting for a stage win," Contador told reporters when asked about his ambitions at his home Tour.

Nine days into the race and it has become clear that Contador is - as good as his spokesman's word - not at the Vuelta "just to be there".

But if Contador's earlier assertion that his ambitions were merely limited to bagging a stage win, then the 31-year-old is trying to do it as quickly as possible (he finished third behind Valverde and Froome on the first summit finish at La Zubia and was fastest of the favourites up the final climb to Valdelinares on Sunday).

"I think we've come to see that Contador's got over his injuries pretty quickly and he's going extremely well," Froome said after dropping to fifth place on GC, 28 seconds behind the new race leader, Quintana.

The Colombian - who leads Contador by three seconds, team-mate Valverde by eight seconds, and compatriot Anacona by nine seconds - is likely to lose the red jersey after Tuesday's 36.7km individual time trial, probably to a rider who, like Contador, crashed out of the Tour with a broken bone.

"Alberto's attack was really very strong," Quintana said. "Froome is the number one favourite for the time trial, but Contador is number one rival for the Vuelta."

This is nothing new. Quintana has from the very outset deflected attention by building up Froome and Contador as the race favourites.

What's more, had Quintana's face managed to creep into the same photo as Contador and Rodriguez then it would have hardly revealed much: the 24-year-old is renowned for his one default facial expression - whether it's battling against crosswinds, dancing up a gruelling mountain ramp or coasting ahead of the safety moto on a snowy Stelvio descent.

In fact, the one other person whose expression would have been truly interesting to see was that of Contador himself. Just what did his face tell Rodriguez when their eyes met as they crossed the line?

On close inspection of the photo one can easily - and entirely speculatively - conjure up a certain arrogance behind Contador's backward gaze: as if the Spaniard was goading those rivals who had managed - just - to keep up with him.

There is also, perhaps, a perceptible tinge of regret: that despite his huge effort, Contador had not managed to take any time off Rodriguez and Quintana on what what may prove to be a mere footnote to the 2014 Vuelta. The forthcoming HC summit finishes at Lagos de Cavodonga (stage 15), La Farrapona (stage 16) and Puerto de Ancares (stage 20) will be far sterner tests and may well see Contador on the receiving end of a similar backward glance - only one far further from the finish line than his.

The way Contador is riding right now probably says more about the nature of his tibia break - this was no gristly compound fracture - rather than his credentials as a potential winner of this year's Vuelta.

We will need to see how he fares against the clock on Tuesday and in some of the higher mountains before we can gauge whether or not Quintana is right to name Contador as the biggest threat to the Colombian's attempt to land an historic Giro-Vuelta double.

And on that note, let's call it a day, for that's well over a thousand words...

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