The contest to win the Vuelta a Espana came to life on the final climb of stage three. It was narrowly won by Movistar's Alejandro Valverde who also takes the red jersey thanks to the 20 second time bonus for winning.
The man responsible for the excitement was Alberto Contador who attacked five times on the climb towards the mountain finish and once again on the flat section at the top. His rapid accelerations blew apart the field. Only Valverde, Rodriguez and Froome could keep pace.
At the finish Contador was outsprinted by Froome and Rodriguez, who came second. But it was a big marker laid down by the Spaniard returning from his doping suspension. A second group of eight containing Mollema, Roche, Intxausti, Anton, and Gesink did well to only lose six seconds.
Chris Froome was almost dropped by Contador on a few occasions. But dug deep to slowly come back each time. In fact it seemed as if Contador sensed that Froome was not on his best form and hoped to crack the Team Sky man.
Monfort, Ten Dam and last years winner Juan Jose Cobo all lost fifty seconds. John Gadret lost over a minute and Thomas De Gendt and Denis Menchov finished around two minutes down.
It really was a thrilling final eight kilometer climb at the end of a stage that had been otherwise quiet. The eight man breakaway had not looked a threat despite containing Phillipe Gilbert. The last man, Irizar, was caught as the peloton rode through Eibar before the final climb.
It is early days yet but Froome, Rodriguez, Valverde and Contador showed that they are the ones likely to be contesting this year's Vuelta. Contador did not look like a someone short of race practice. He will be a force for the rest of the tour.
The are more mountains tomorrow as the riders travel 160.6 km from Barakaldo to Estacion de Valdezcarey.
Alejandro Valverde (MOV) 8h 46' 56"
Benat Intxausti (MOV) +18"
Joaquim Rodriguez (KAT) +19"
Christopher Froome (SKY) +20"
Alberto Contador (STB) +24"