By Shane Stokes
Vuelta leader Alejandro Valverde expects a strong onslaught from his rivals in the mountainous stages ahead in the Vuelta. "I believe that [my rivals] will try to attack me [on the next] three stages. They are obliged to. I refer especially to both the Kazakh riders and mainly to Vinokourov, which is a rider able to attack at any time. I think that he is really the most dangerous, without dismissing Kashechkin. And if he feels well, it is certain that Sastre will try to attack too."
The next few days will certainly give plenty of opportunity for aggression, with the race moving back into the mountains today. Valverde analysed the principal difficulties. "The stage of the Pandera scares people more than the one which finishes at the top of Calar Alto, because of the difficulty of its slopes. For my part, however, I think that tomorrow's stage is even more difficult, especially due to the climb of the Velefique, which is absolutely terrible."
He has shown well there in the past. "Two years ago, I had a brilliant stage there and I do not forget it, but I also remember the difficulty of the day. It is certain that if tomorrow I feel as well as I did then, I will have the possibility to ride a great stage! I can't say now what will be my tactic, because it will depend on how I feel once that we start to climb. If I just feel okay, I will try to follow my adversaries but if I feel really well, I will still judge the form of my rivals first, before thinking of attacking."
Having performed strongly in the race against the clock on Saturday, Valverde is gaining confidence as the Vuelta enters the final six days of racing. "I wanted to see how the time trial in Cuenta would go to see how my condition really was," he said at a press conference at the Elba hotel in Almeria on Monday morning. "I did well in the last time trials I took part in [prior to the race] and I knew that I was able to perform well. But I was pleasantly surprised by my result, which was even better than I hoped. Consequently, it is obvious that I feel much more tranquil today than I was three days ago."
The possibility of winning the race encourages him greatly, especially in a year when he was forced to withdraw from his second successive Tour de France. "I had already finished third and fourth in the Vuelta, but I had never yet found myself in the position of leader. It is a big step forward. I am confident, however, because my feelings are excellent and I can count on the support of a great team.
"I do think that it may be necessary to wait until the end of the time trial before knowing who will get onto the highest step of the podium in Madrid. In the first mountain stages, the gaps were not big and if things go the same way during the three days which come, the time trial on Saturday could be decisive indeed."