Movistar’s dream start to the Vuelta a España continued in Andorra on Saturday as Alejandro Valverde claimed the team’s third stage of a possible eight – equalling Argos-Shimano’s tally thus far – and simultaneously moved into the overall lead of the mountains classification. As if that were not enough, Valverde remains a very strong challenger for the overall in fourth place, 50 seconds down on leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
Of course, it hasn’t all gone Movistar’s way, despite taking the team time trial in their home town of Pamplona on the race’s opening Saturday. The crash on stage four to Ezcaray, where Valverde lost the lead and Imanol Erviti got some very bad cuts and gashes to his face, was not a day to remember. And Juan José Cobo’s loss of five minutes on the Andorran climb saw the 2011 Vuelta winner sink to 27th overall at seven minutes, all hope of a repeat title in Madrid going up in smoke in the process.
However, Valverde’s victory in Andorra, the 28th for Movistar in 2012, was a high point in the team’s season without a doubt.
“I attacked because I wanted to get rid of some of the guys behind me overall, like Robert Gesink (Rabobank), not to try and do anything against the three ahead of me on GC,” Valverde revealed afterwards.
“It had been a very hard stage, especially with the speed at the start and I could see that guys like Gesink were suffering.”
Equally important, though, was that Valverde played his cards well when Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) attacked close to the finish. Rather than rise to the bait and try to follow the Madrileño, he opted to stick with Rodriguez, the ‘home boy’ who lives in Andorra for part of the year and who has trained on the Collada frequently.
“I knew that Joaquim knew the climb really well, so I sat on his back wheel for as long as possible. He told me there was no way Alberto could maintain that kind of pace all the way to the finish, and he was right. It was a very tough climb, with constant changes of rhythm.
“Then when I came into that last corner I attacked when he sat up a little, I knew if I was the first into that final corner, I’d have a chance.”
Valverde says that the ‘four strongest riders on the race were the four strongest on today’s stage.” But he continues to play it very cautiously about his chances of fighting for the overall, saying that he has just completed a two-year suspension off the bike, has had more days racing this year than any of his rivals for the Vuelta GC and does not know how long his form can last. It’s not that he’s given up hope about it – which is why he attacked Gesink and co – but rather that he’s not going to start making any mission statements.
“I’m just taking it on the day by day. I’ve no idea how long my form will last before I crack and I’ve been racing for a long time.” Valverde said. “Obviously I won’t give up just like that, but the other rivals are very strong. After getting that first stage win [at Arrate on Monday] everything else is a bonus.”