Spanish fans let out a huge sigh of relief today when Vuelta a España race leader Alejandro Valverde recovered from a bad moment and tightened his grip on the overall leader's maillot oro. Distanced on the steep middle section of La Pandera, the Caisse d'Epargne rider made a superb recovery and caught, dropped and distanced his closest GC challenger Robert Gesink (Rabobank). He also took time out of Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas), who had also managed to shed him on the toughest slopes.
Valverde has always had a bad day in previous Vueltas but this day, the last stage with a major summit finish of the race, he moved a big step closer to finally winning his home Grand Tour. He ended the 14th stage 31 seconds ahead of Gesink in the general classification, adding four seconds to his advantage. And while Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) succeeded in taking time out of him, making their move when he was in difficulty, their 14- and 12-second gains still leaves both relatively far back.
Sanchez must now make up a minute and 10 seconds to take the maillot oro, while Mosquera is almost two minutes behind. With no more summit finishes to come, things are looking better and better for Valverde's chances.
"I think I am 70% towards winning the race," he said after the stage. "There are dangerous points still ahead such as the stage to Avila and the climb of Navacerrada, but we have a very good team and we will do everything we can to control things. The other general classification riders are still pretty strong, and we'll have to keep an eye on the others in the top six."
Known as an attacking, explosive, slightly unpredicatable rider, he's made a conscious effort to improve his consistency this year. A lighter spring programme plus less of an emphasis on the Classics saw him build up more slowly for a Tour de France he ultimately never took part in.
Ironically, missing that race because of his Operacion Puerto-related ban in Italy may have worked in his favour. It kept him fresher for this race, and also appears to have heightened his determination. Both of those factors may have played a part on the Pandera, with the Spaniard gauging his effort and finishing very quickly.
"The start of the climb was very explosive," he said. "Everyone started riding at their limit, going very strongly, and I had a difficult moment. It was mostly because of the cold weather and the rain. Gesink attacked with a very strong rhythm but I decided to go at my own pace.
"I was prepared to suffer the whole way up the mountain. I gauged my effort at the beginning, I didn't want to go over the limit. In the end I was really strong and think I judged the climb well."
He confessed that at one moment he thought the Vuelta was slipping away from him, but then he started to feel better about his chances. "I could see that the gap was very small and they were not really getting away from me, so I became more confident."
That same confidence was evident in Valverde's voice and body language at the end of the stage. A week may remain in the race, and the top six places are covered by just one minute and 54 seconds, but each of Valverde's rivals must be now wondering just how to wrest the maillot oro off his back and make it their own.
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