The Spaniard attacked his British rival with one kilometre to go, and managed to pull out a lead of fifteen seconds , which, when added to the ten bonus seconds for finishing first, means he now lies 1-39 ahead of Froome in the overall classification.
Earlier on the final climb, Froome was the first to make a move when he launched an explosive attack with just over four kilometres to go. Contador was the only rider to follow, as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Fabio Aru (Astana) formed a three-man chasing group behind.
Froome continued to distance this trio further and further in the final kilometres, but was unable to drop the race leader. When Contador made his move, the British rider looked spent, and opted to try and limit his losses rather than follow his wheel.
Sky has spent much of the final two climbs at the front of the bunch, seemingly in the knowledge that Froome was back to something like his very best form. He moves up to third in the overall classification, just three seconds behind Valverde, who finished fourth on the stage, 55 seconds down.
In third place was Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale), who came closer than expected to holding on to what would have been a spectacular victory. The Italian was the strongest rider from the day’s thirteen-man break, having gone clear from the rest with Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) on the day’s penultimate climb, and then attacked alone on the final climb.
Despite possessing a lead of only one minute ahead of the peloton at this point, De Marchi pulled it out to 1-30. The gap only started coming down at the climb’s steepest gradients, and he was caught by Contador and Froome with just a few kilometres to go.
His breakaway companion Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had earlier been disqualified from the race in dramatic fashion, as punishment for a scuffle between himself and Ivan Rovny (Tinkoff-Saxo). The pair exchanged swipes at each other during a heated debate in the breakaway, and a short while later – by which time the Italian had broken clear with De Marchi and Poels – both riders were approached by the commissaires’ car and kicked off the race.
It was a bad day all round for Omega Pharma-QuickStep, who also saw their GC rider Rigoberto Uran lose a huge amount of the time. The Colombian was struggling as early as the third climb, was dropped entirely on the fourth, and continued to lose more time on the fifth. He slips out of the top 10 overall.
Ultimately, all the major action occurred on the final climb, although the race had threatened to tumble into chaos when Froome, Contador and Valverde found themselves off the front of the bunch on the day’s first climb, with Rodriguez missing out. The gap did extend to around half a minute, but was soon reeled in by Katusha.
The earlier climb had witnessed drama in the king of the mountains classification, which Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural) now leads ahead of Valverde, having claimed maximum points over the first three climbs. Valverde’s fourth place finish was also not enough to take the lead in the points classification, meaning John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) retains the green jersey.
Tomorrow is a rest day, after which some less challenging stages await. Froome is likely to wait until Saturday to launch his latest attack for the red jersey. Contador’s lead is now a big one, but if Froome’s form continues to improve as rapidly as it appears to be doing, he may have a chance.
Vuelta a Espana 2014, stage 16: San Martín del Rey Aurelio to La Farrapona. Lagos de Somiedo, 160.5km
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo in 4-53-35
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 15 secs
3. Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) Cannondale at 50 secs
4. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 55 secs
5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 59 secs
6. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana at 1-06
7. Dan Martin (Ire) Garmin-Sharp at 1-12
8. Robert Gesink (Ned) Belkin at 1-22
9. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC Racing at 1-43
10. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Sharp at 1-48
Overall classification after stage 16
1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo in 63-25-00
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 1-36
3. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 1-39
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 2-29
5. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana at 3-38
6. Dan Martin (Ire) Garmin-Sharp at 6-17
7. Robert Gesink (Ned) Belkin at 6-43
8. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC Racing at 6-55
9. Warren Barguil (Fra) Giant-Shimano at 8-37
10. Damiano Caruso (Ita) Cannondale at 9-10
Overall contenders fight it out for time on final climb; Alberto Contador maintains lead