Prior to the start of stage nineteen, Caisse d'Epargne directeur sportif Alfonso Galilea told Cyclingnews that if Alejandro Valverde preserved the same time gaps over his rivals by the end of the day, the team would be satisfied. Things worked out better than that, with closest rival Robert Gesink dropping to sixth overall and the Spaniard nabbing a 16-second time bonus for second on the stage.
As was expected, Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel Euskadi) launched an attack going over the top of the final climb, seeking to get clear of Valverde and then open up a big gap on the sodden descent. The move was unsuccessful, however, and while the Olympic champion ended the day second overall, he is now one minute and 26 seconds back and has an almost impossible task ahead of him.
Third-placed Ivan Basso is a further 19 seconds back and will be preoccupied tomorrow with trying to fend off Cadel Evans. The Australian is just 14 seconds behind the Liquigas rider and having beaten him by three times that much in the Valencia time trial, would appear to have a good chance of finishing third overall.
Barring a shock turnaround, though, the win appears to be Valverde's. "For tomorrow the closest rider, Samuel Sanchez, is one minute 26 and seconds back," said a smiling Galilea. "He needs to take back three seconds per kilometre. Normally that gap should be enough not to have any problems.
"In cycling, you can't say anything until you have arrived at the finish line. At this moment, though, we are in a very good position. If we don't have a crash or any mechanical problems, we think that we are close to winning the general classification."
Valverde is also starting to think of the final maillot oro, and what would be the first Grand Tour win of his career. "It is too early yet to celebrate because one very important stage is left to race but if I said yesterday that 70% of the job was done, today I can say that only 10% is left."
Apart from his rivals, he also had to beat the day's conditions. Temperatures were reportedly close to zero on top of the climbs, and the riders were all visibly frozen at the finish. The rain also made the descents treacherous, and the GC contenders were very cautious dropping down towards the line.
"We started the day under the sun, but once it started raining the weather turned absolutely terrible," he said. "Nevertheless today, like every other day in the Vuelta, I have been very attentive despite of the fact that I was rather nervous. I believe this is due to maturity and also to what I learned from the mistakes I made in the past."
Caisse d'Epargne and the other teams had a near-two hour transfer this evening to Segovia, where the penultimate stage time trial will take place tomorrow afternoon. Valverde will start at 17.06 Spanish time and will be chasing Sanchez, who will begin two minutes earlier.
Valverde beat his rival by six seconds in the prologue, but lost 18 seconds in the stage seven time trial in Valencia. Even so, the gap is not big enough to cause Galilea any concern.
"We think that Alejandro has a big enough difference, using the reference of the last time trial in Valencia," he said. "There it was 30 kilometres and completely flat. This one is 27 kilometres, and there are some little climbs. So it is better for Alejandro's characteristics. If we look at the previous time trial, we are in a very good position."
If the win is nearly certain, though, the ultimate outcome is less so. Valverde is the subject of two procedures with the Court of Arbitration in Sport. If the UCI/WADA appeal over alleged Operacion Puerto links is successful, it remains to be seen if any victory would stay credited to him.
That judicial outcome is still weeks - or even months - away, though. The Vuelta verdict should be known tomorrow evening.
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