At first, Valerio Conti thought he had done enough to win the stage 3 time trial at the Vuelta a San Juan. The UAE Team Emirates rider was escorted to the hot seat after stopping the clock 0.8 of a second quicker than Remco Evenepoel, but ultimately he had to give way to another Deceuninck-QuickStep rider, Julian Alaphilippe.
Conti showcased his early-season form with a strong display on the 12km course, which riders tackled on their regular road set-ups, and he finished the stage in second place, 12 seconds down on a rampant Alaphilippe, who claimed his second stage win in as many days.
"I believed when I was in the hot seat, but at the same time, Alapahilippe is a great rider and he’s going very strongly," Conti said afterwards.
"He won yesterday, he won today, and these efforts of 15-20 minutes like today are the kind of efforts that really suit him. I’ve come second but behind a great rider."
On and off the bike, Deceuninck-QuickStep have dominated the headlines in Argentina this week and, before rolling down the start ramp, Conti had Alaphilippe’s young teammate Evenepoel pegged as the favourite for stage honours.
The 19-year-old, who skipped the under-23 ranks after landing the junior road and time trial world titles last season, is in his first race as a professional and has ridden with considerable assurance thus far. The Belgian took third on Tuesday’s stage.
"I had him down as the favourite because everybody told me that he’s a real phenomenon," Conti said of Evenepoel. "In the time trial, if I’m not wrong, he was junior world champion last year, and with a big time gap too. And the motivation a young rider has in his first races is always huge, so I had him as the favourite. I managed to finish ahead of him but another great rider finished in front of me."
Conti’s performance has lifted him to third place in the overall standings, 22 seconds behind the new leader Alaphilippe, while his UAE Team Emirates companion Fernando Gaviria is now second overall. The Vuelta a San Juan peloton faces a long transfer on Wednesday for a stage that ought to suit the sprinters. "We’ll be working for Gaviria on Wednesday, because I think we’ve got the strongest sprinter," Conti said.
A professional since 2014, Conti is a solid climber and puncheur, whose biggest win came on the 2016 Vuelta a España, when he won the hilly stage to Urdax. The Roman native is targeting a high overall finish on his first appearance in Argentina, and Friday’s stage 5, with a summit finish, will be pivotal.
"In the Alto Colorado stage, I’ll try to hold on as long as possible and try to get a good place on GC," he said.