Alejandro Valverde gave Movistar its first victory of the 2018 Vuelta a España on Sunday, taking out stage 2 to Caminito del Rey over new race leader Michal Kwiatkowski. The win was the 120th career victory for the 38-year-old, and his 10th stage win in his home Grand Tour.
The victory came after some aggressive pace-making by Movistar and Team Sky, which split the peloton before it even reached the long but shallow category 3 finishing climb, and signaled Valverde's return to form after a disappointing Tour de France.
"Before the start, we already had clear instructions of going to the front with the whole team into the final circuit, because there were dangerous, narrow sections where you had to take over if you didn't want to get caught out of position," Valverde said.
There were indeed a number of contenders who were distanced - overnight leader Rohan Dennis and his BMC teammate Richie Porte lost 13:31, as did Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). Others were dropped later, with Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) losing four minutes, Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) gave up 1:15, and others like Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) conceded a handful of seconds.
"The heat really hurt a lot of people," Valverde said. "I was surprised to see so many riders dropping back though. Hearing on the radio that real contenders for this win were getting out of contention, we were more motivated about seeking for this victory."
Quick-Step's Laurens De Plus lit up the finale with a searing attack with 1km to go and, though he didn't get a big gap, he continued to carve out time until the steep final pitch when Valverde and Kwiatkowski surged out of the chasing bunch.
"I knew the biggest rival for today was Kwiato, but I couldn't wait to just launch the sprint because De Plus was ahead of us. I waited until the last 550-600 metres, thinking about having to go on one long attack through the last few turns. I think I timed that first effort well; Kwiatkowski was like one metre behind after my move, and you could see he had taken a big effort to follow my wheel."
Valverde went into the Tour de France as one of three leaders of the Movistar team, but has insisted that he is at the Vuelta in service of Nairo Quintana, while aiming for stage wins. He does not expect that to change.
"For the time being, we've already got a victory, and achieved one of the goals I had in mind coming into this Vuelta," he said. "The Tour de France just didn't go as I expected. I didn't feel my legs as I wanted them to. I was also eager to score a victory after two months, and coming back to winning ways in La Vuelta after missing last year's race.
"I don't rule myself out of [GC] contention at all, since I've shown I'm doing great and we're just getting started, but our only leader has to be Nairo, and I can't say I'll stay focused at every single stage not to lose time, 100 per cent, because it just doesn't work like that for me in this race. There are other goals in mind. And if Nairo needs me to work for him because he's in a position to win the Vuelta outright, I won't hesitate to offer him a hand."