The climb of the Alto de Puig Llorença didn’t quite have Alejandro Valverde’s name written all over it – that honour belonged to Joaquim Rodriguez, whose father painted the road in his honour the night before – but his Movistar team certainly had earmarked stage 9 of the Vuelta a España as a major rendezvous in the race for final overall honours.
The men in navy blue were prominent in chasing down the early escapees on the approach to the short final ascent, and once the road began to climb, both Valverde and his teammate Nairo Quintana were on the offensive, putting Chris Froome (Sky) in difficulty as they bounded up the 19% slopes that reared up a kilometre in.
Their day was to end in disappointment, however. Quintana, that one flourish apart, looked simply to follow the moves, and while Valverde was more aggressive, he was unable to make any of his attacks stick.
As the leading group fragmented almost in slow motion in the final 1500 metres, Quintana and Valverde found themselves on the back foot, crossing the line in 6th and 7th place on the stage, 20 seconds down on stage winner and new red jersey Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), 18 behind Froome and 15 down on Rodriguez.
Speaking immediately after reaching the top, Valverde said that he had been affected on the final climb by a shoulder injury he sustained in a mid-stage crash that involved a number of riders, including Dumoulin, Fabio Aru (Astana) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
"I'm not one who likes to make up excuses, but after the crash I really thought it would turn out way worse for me, that I would even have to retire," Valverde said. "I'll undergo medical checks as soon as I get down this hill, because my shoulder is so inflamed. I don't think my collarbone is broken, because if it was, I wouldn't have been able to get on my bike again, but to be honest, it hurts a lot, it’s like having a knife stuck into it."
If that was the case, then Movistar’s forcing on the approach to the finish at El Poble Nou de Benitatxell, not to mention Valverde’s attacks on the climb itself, would take on the feel of something of a bluff worthy of El Cid and the siege of nearby Valencia. Certainly, it puts a more positive slant on an otherwise disappointing outing.
"I did everything I could to stay with the favourites, and I attacked early on the last climb to test how my legs were," Valverde said. "It was difficult to hope for a better result in those conditions, but I'm happy because I didn't lose much time. I just hope the injuries after the crash clear up well."
His team later confirmed no broken bones in the incident, although Valverde suffered deep bruising in the crash.
The veteran Valverde is enjoying his best season since returning from a doping ban at the beginning of 2012, winning the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne, and placing third overall at the Tour de France. He remains in the picture at this Vuelta, lying 5th overall, 1:09 down on Dumoulin.
Quintana limits losses
Despite his brief cameo on the lower slopes of Sunday’s final climb, Quintana explained afterwards that the stage – and, indeed, much of the opening week – had been largely a case of damage limitation.
"This was one of the most difficult uphill finishes for me in this race, with short, steep slopes where specialists like Joaquim Rodríguez are really strong," Quintana said. "For me, it was a matter of defending myself as best I could."
The Colombian lies 7th overall, 1:18 down on Dumoulin, who he warned is in the process of marking himself out as a genuine general classification threat, particularly with the Burgos time trial to come at the beginning of the final week. "Being a rouleur and an excellent time trialist, Dumoulin is really surprising us and showing himself to be a serious contender," he said.
The re-emergence of Froome, too, did not pass unnoticed. Briefly dropped at the bottom of the climb, the Sky man somehow ended the day by pegging back time on everyone bar Dumoulin. Despite his travails on Friday’s first major summit finish, the Tour de France winner finds himself just one second behind Quintana, who is already looking ahead to glut of mountainous stages in week two, starting with Wednesday’s 5,200 metres of vertical climbing in Andorra.
"We saw that Froome was very good, we can’t rule out [Esteban] Chaves and Purito was very strong, as was [Fabio] Aru," Quintana said. "We’ll have to wait for Andorra, where things will possibly become a lot clearer."