Movistar leader predicts the Pyrenees will be decisive
Alejandro Valverde believes he is well placed after the first half of the Vuelta a Espana and is hopeful of producing a good performance in Wednesday's time trial and in the key Pyrenean stages at the weekend.
"We're happy to be where we are right now. I don't feel tired at all: I'm still feeling strong and the standings show we're right into the fight," Valverde said during at a press conference on the first rest day, after the Vuelta transferred north to Tarazona in Catalunya.
Valverde is currently fourth overall, a minute behind new race leader Chris Horner. Like many of the overall contenders, was surprised that Horner was so strong on Monday's mountain finish.
"Neither I nor any of my rivals were counting on such a demonstration as yesterday's. There are some talented riders here: Basso, Purito and myself are all in great form, and we couldn't follow him yesterday," he said.
"We weren't expecting him on putting a minute on us, but we knew he was strong. We could all see it on the first stage he won and he proved it again yesterday. He pedals easy, not nervous at all, and he didn't offer any signs of weakness yet. Still we don't know how far he can get, if he improve or decrease.
"We have to be satisfied with what we got until this point: we're into GC contention, this last stage was the first real hard day in the race and there's almost everything to be played in the race.
A testing time trial in Tarazona
Before speaking to the media, Valverde studied Wednesday's time trial course. He was pleased to discover that the 38.8km loop around Tarazona is not flat. He predicted limited time gaps and some surprises.
"Despite being a time trial, I don't think it's bad for me at all," he said.
"We were able to recon it this morning and the first 20k are really tough. There are four of five k's of flat, then a 2km slope, and after that there's the real climb – 10km in open roads, much headwind, with no really steep sections, but some complicated ones about 5-6%. The gaps will be made there.
"After cresting, a fast descent, some flat and another 4k downhill before entering Tarazona. Except for the first 20, 22 kilometers - it will be pretty fast."
"Should I have a good day there, I don't think there will be huge gaps - I could even end up fighting with the top guys. I won't put any time gaps on this - there could be surprises."
Valverde is also looking forward to the decisive mountain stages in the Pyrenees. But admitted that the Vuelta is still wide open. "To me, the three Pyrenean stage are the hardest in this year's Vuelta," he said.
"The first one, with the mountain-top finish in La Gallina and the climbs before it, is really hard, while the second one has 230km on the official route plus a 20k neutral zone: 250km in total, with one-hour-long climbs and a difficult final, which I know since I won there in the 2012 Tour.
"Any of the three Pyrenees stages, as well as the other three in Cantabria and Asturias, could mean you gain time or lose it all. There's much strategy on the table: we can play the waiting card, so one rival or the other crack, or attack on climb where we think we can make some hurt. Anything can happen."