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Spain’s Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) may have won the Vuelta a España in 2009 and be by far the most experienced Vuelta GC contender on this year's start sheet, but he appears to be edging towards the idea that his much younger team-mate Nairo Quintana could be the Movistar leader for this year’s race. However, passing on the baton of team leader is perhaps not as straightforward as it could seem.
Valverde’s fourth place on GC in the Tour de France - where he struggled hard to hold onto second overall, before finally being ousted from the provisional podium in the final Pyrenean stage - was partly eclipsed by his stunning rebound in August: a second victory in the Clásica San Sebastián and moving into the top spot in the UCI WorldTour rankings.
On top of that, Valverde has always ridden strongly in the Vuelta, with his worst placing ever [apart from an abandon in 2002 as a neo-pro] fifth in 2008. Yet Valverde, perhaps bearing in mind the strength of the field and he is now 34, says he going to take things cautiously in the Vuelta. To the point where he hinted that Quintana could well be Movistar’s most protected rider.
“We are here to win the overall and we have two riders with a serious chance of being high up on GC,” Valverde said.
“I’m not going to rule myself out, I’m in good shape and in form, but perhaps Nairo Quintana is stronger, as he showed [by winning] in the Vuelta a Burgos.”
If this proves to be the case, for the first time in the Vuelta in nearly a decade, Valverde would take, at least initially, a less prominent role than usual. In the Murcia-born rider’s case, Valverde's taking a back seat would signify the end of a very long chapter - and significant one, given both Movistar’s and Valverde’s relationship with the race - in the Vuelta's history.
“In the Giro Nairo already showed he can handle the responsibility of riding as leader, just he had done in 2013 when I had that issue in the Tour de France,” – where he lost nearly quarter of an hour after someone rode into his back wheel just as the race was splitting apart into various echelons on stage 13.
“I would love to go for several different stages, on this route there are various days which are good for me,” Valverde said. “But the important thing is to win this race. And if I have to work for Nairo, I will do so without any problem. We are a team and we want the red jersey.”
“The race will decide, but right now I believe he should be racing a little more strongly than I am.”
However, there are many other factors to bear in mind. Firstly Valverde has yet to renew his contract for next season with Movistar, secondly, as he puts it, “this is the best line-up of favourites in years,” and thirdly that the Vuelta is where Valverde feels “most comfortable racing. The Tour is the Tour, but here I’m amongst my own people.”
On top of that, further complicating the picture of what exactly Valverde might be capable of producing are the World Championships in Ponferrada, where after so many near misses - five podium finishes but no gold - an all-time record - and where Valverde knows he has an excellent chance of winning. As if that was not enough, there is the question of racking up some more WorldTour points and reinforcing his position as number one rider in the UCI ranking.
Add in the fact that the a first summit finish like stage six in La Zubia, which has a final climb almost designed for Valverde, could yet see the Spaniard come to the fore almost by default. Should he end up racing for his team-mate, though, the 2014 Vuelta could well mark a major watershed in his career as he bows out in favour of Quintana and, after over a decade, says goodbye to battling for the general classification in Grand Tours.
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