As a second year professional Alejandro Valverde won two stages and finished third overall in the Vuelta a España. Then aged just 23 years of age, his 2003 performance led many to predict he’d soon win Spain’s biggest event, as well as many other races.
His career hasn’t quite progressed along those lines; since then his best performance was third again in 2004, and second to Alexandre Vinokourov two years later. This time round, Valverde is once again in the maillot oro of race leader and, appearing more relaxed, he will fight to keep it all the way to Madrid.
“I learned a lot in recent years,” he told journalists at the press conference held on Thursday at the team hotel near the Almeria sea front. “I am quieter than I was before, when I was trying to win stages at any cost at the beginning of the race and then always ending up having a bad day towards the end. It is important to keep my strength. I am also more attentive than I was in the past, and my team helps me a lot too.”
Valverde has been known for starting strong and then fading slightly; he did that in the 2006 Vuelta, and also in last year’s Tour de France, where he won stages one and six but had to settle for an eventual ninth overall. His pacing is different this time round; he placed ninth in the opening time trial, then 13th in the next race against the clock in Valencia. Fifth on the stage to Alto de Aitana moved him from seventh to second overall, and then third at Xorret del Cati saw him slot into the race lead.
He’s saved energy where possible, even if he said that the opening eleven stages have been stressful for all. “Until today the Vuelta has been very fast with a lot of tension in the bunch,” he stated. “We had to race under the rain in the Netherlands and Belgium and later in very hot weather in Spain. Many riders are already very tired because of that.
“Now we have the three most anticipated stages of the Vuelta and, of course, the most difficult. Velefique, Sierra Nevada and Pandera. I know them all very well and for sure there will be significant gaps between the best riders in the classification. Finishing at altitude is not the only reason why these stages will be difficult, but also because the entire route [on those days] is very hard.”
Friday, Saturday and Sunday will see a cluster of summit finishes and, he thinks, will have a very significant effect on the final classification of the race. He knows that his campaign will depend on how he rides over that period; getting more time on his rivals will greatly boost his chances. The fact that he has won twice before on the Pandera will give him additional motivation
“I believe it will be difficult to take the yellow jersey off the shoulders of the rider who is wearing it on Sunday evening,” he said. “Even if a tough final week will remain and include some tricky stages plus the Toledo time trial.”
Right now, heading out of the rest day, the classification is still tight at the top. Twelve riders are within four minutes of his race lead, with seven of those less than two and a half minutes adrift. Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Tom Danielson (Garmin Slipstream), Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) are particularly dangerous, given that they are between seven seconds and one minute three seconds back. A moment’s weakness or a tactical error, and any one of those could take over at the top.
“Iván Basso is still the most dangerous rival but now we also have to take Cadel Evans into account,” he said, when asked to name his biggest threats. “In Assen we did not know how he really was [in terms of form] but he showed that he is very strong. And of course, Samuel Sánchez, Robert Gesink and any other rider who is at less than one minute behind is also very dangerous.”
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