Down, but not out. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) insisted that the Vuelta a España is not over until the top of the Coll de la Gallina on Saturday afternoon, despite suffering a major blow to his hopes of a winning the red jersey for a second time on Friday.
Valverde, who won the Vuelta in 2009, trailed race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) by just 25 seconds at the start of the day, and the way his Movistar team rode – leading the peloton all day before sending Nairo Quintana on the attack on the final climb up the Coll de la Rabassa – suggested the Spaniard was out to narrow the gap or even take the jersey ahead of Saturday’s mountainous finale.
Yet it was Yates who turned the tables and went on the offensive some 10km from the summit of the Andorran mountain. Valverde’s remaining teammates were unable to close the gap, and it yawned out as the rest of the contenders hesitated.
In the end, Valverde even lost contact with the chase group, finishing 20 seconds behind Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and a full 1:07 behind Yates.
“My rivals were better than me. That’s how it is,” Valverde said at the top of the mountain, where the Spanish media hordes piled in to begin the inquest.
“I finished a bit all over the place. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t always respond the same way.”
Valverde pointed to a possible tactical error in not shutting Yates down sooner. The Briton surprised everyone by going on the attack from so far out, and Valverde initially set Richard Carapaz to pull him back, but the Ecuadorian could only hold him at 15 seconds before being dropped. The impetus dropped from the chase, and Quintana, partly due to a puncture, was unable to stem the tide.
“When Yates went, Richard went to close it, but we got stuck in the middle,” Valverde said. “Maybe I should have gone once I saw the gap, but at the end of the day they’re decisions you make. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
Valverde is still second overall but now trails Yates by 1:38. Not only did the race leader disappear into the distance, but those behind him appeared much closer in the rearview mirror. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) was part of the initial Quintana attack that Yates bridged over to and finished third to move back into third place, just 20 seconds behind Valverde, whose podium position is even under threat from Mas at 37 seconds.
Valverde cut a downbeat figure beyond the finish line, but tried to hold onto the fragments of optimism. Unlike Mas, who initially refused to talk, he engaged with questions from all sections of the media, but just didn’t have the answers.
He was asked if Yates can be beaten. “I don’t know,” came the reply.
“What happened to me today could happen to him tomorrow. Tomorrow we might take time back or we might lose more. Who knows?"
Valverde insisted he “will not roll over” and will throw everything he has left at Yates when the race goes over six climbs in the space of 97 brutal Andorran kilometres on Saturday.
“It’ll be difficult to win the Vuelta, of course it will. It was difficult this morning, and it’s difficult now,” Valverde said. “But it’s not impossible.”