On Wednesday he said that his Vuelta a España chances were very much on the line and depended on a decent performance on the first real mountain summit finish of the race.

“I’m sure that some riders are better than I am now and more explosive than me,” said Alberto Contador playing down his prospects. “I hope to have a good race and not get out of contention from the overall ranking of the Vuelta. My future in this race depends on tomorrow’s result.”

Approximately 24 hours later his stated expectations were revealed as being far too conservative, with the Spaniard matching the best and finishing third on stage six, crossing the line in the same time as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Chris Froome (Sky).

On a day when the general classification chances of many took a knock, the Tinkoff Saxo rider shrugged off the tibia fracture he suffered in the Tour de France and put in a performance which marks him out as a real overall contender.

“To finish third in the same time as Froome and Valverde is almost a victory for me,” he said after the stage.

“Had I just made the top 10, I’d have been happy. My knee still hurts sometimes but fingers crossed, I hope it’ll last like this.”

Contador had an excellent season up to the Tour de France, finishing either first or second in every stage race he entered. He clocked up wins in Tirreno Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, and also took stage wins in both of those plus the Volta ao Algarve.

He was also second overall in the latter, plus in the Volta a Catalunya and the Critérium du Dauphiné.

However his ambition of winning a third Tour evaporated when he suffered a fractured tibia on the race’s tenth stage. On July 23 he said via Twitter that his recovery wasn’t going well. “Bad day, the wound healing gets complicated, I’ve no date to take the bike. Goodbye to the Vuelta.”

Team manager Bjarne Riis sought to downplay this, telling media it was still too soon to say that Contador wouldn’t do the Spanish Grand Tour.

Contador’s spokesman Jacinto Vidarte subsequently said that the rider had no interest in riding for riding’s sake. “The injury is not really good,” he told CyclingTips at the Tour de France. “The most important [factor] is that he doesn’t know how much time he will need to recover properly and, especially, to start riding the bike again. He has no time to take the start in a good condition, to fight for the victory.

“He doesn’t want to be at the Vuelta just to be there.”

On August 1st, Contador indicated he was only then able to start pedalling. “Hello all, I’m going on with recuperation, I can already flex the knee and am starting to take contact with the bike!!!”

This was however was contradicted afterwards, with Gran Fondo New York CEO Ulrich Fluhme telling CyclingTips that he saw Contador training on big climbs in Italy and Switzerland on July 28th and 30th.

It is now clear that he is in much better condition than he or the team indicated. Indeed, his stated ambition on the eve of the race was simply of going for a stage win in the third week; Thursday’s performance shows that he can actually aim considerably higher than that.

Still, he insists he is not at 100 percent and has more improvement to make. “I haven’t prepared for the Vuelta as I should have done. I’m still below my level, I don’t have the same weight as at the Tour de France but I’m getting better and better every day,” he said.

“It’s been hard for me to watch the Tour from home. Honestly, if there’s a possibility to attack some day, I’ll do it.”

Contador’s rivals are likely to be much more wary from this point on. He is now third overall, 18 seconds behind Alejandro Valverde and just three behind the latter’s team-mate, Nairo Quintana.