Five days after he spent a day in the Vuelta a España lead almost by chance, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) regained his right to wear la roja - the leader’s red jersey - with a stunning stage win at La Zubia.
On a climb he knows well from his altitude training camps in nearby Sierra Nevada, Valverde laid down an impressively fierce, constant pace in the remorselessly rising final two kilometres. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was one of the few riders able to escape his clutches, but Valverde responded perfectly to claim his first Vuelta stage win, his eleventh victory of the season, and recapture the lead.
Although he had clearly worked for Nairo Quintana up until that point, the fact that he responded to Rodriguez, rather than simply continuing to act as sherpa for the Colombian raised questions about whether - as Valverde had said - Quintana was still above him in the Movistar pecking order.
“I’m pleased, my legs are turning well but Nairo is the leader and I’m up there, too,” Valverde said. “I kept the pace they told me to do over the race radio and which Nairo wanted, then when Purito [Rodriguez] attacked, I went for it, and I could get ahead of him.”
Valverde’s late attack in Cordoba had shown that his crash on stage three had had no real ill effects, and on stage six the Spaniard is now back in the lead and has added an eighth Vuelta stage to his palmarès, as well as his 25th day in the Vuelta lead. Following all the disappointment of taking fourth in the Tour, the Spaniard appears to have returned to top condition for his second Grand Tour of the season.
Curiously enough, all three top finishers today - Froome, Contador and Valverde - had disappointing Tours, but Valverde, for one, said he was not surprised, he said, by Contador’s ability to bounce back. “He may not be in top form, but he’s certainly got the condition to go for the Vuelta,” Valverde commented.
As for Rodriguez, Valverde said his reacting so strongly to his attack was “because we can’t let him get a single metre’s advantage, he’s too dangerous. I didn’t think about it for a second, I went after him.”
“At the end of the day, it’s worked out very well, we eliminated some rivals, we also took some bonus seconds and the result is fantastic for the whole team.”
“The main leader of the squad continues to be Nairo,” he repeated again in a declaration of intent that seems clear enough, although the ‘small print’ that followed - “though I don’t rule out my own chances.” - might prove to have its own significance in the days to come.
“We get on really well with each other and I worked my heart out for him today,” Valverde added, “If I keep feeling well, I'll try and go for some more stage wins, though I will keep the faith GC-wise.”
“The important thing is that one of us Blues can win the race,” he concluded. That may be so. But the interesting thing for his rivals, though, is that right now it looks as two Movistar riders are capable of triumphing in Santiago de Compostela on September 14th - at the moment, Valverde, for all his asserting Quintana is the leader, remains ahead in the game.