Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) celebrated his first ever stage victory at the Giro d'Italia with gusto in Andalo, insisting his debut in the Corsa Rosa has been a success despite now only fighting for a place on the podium rather than overall victory.
Valverde hugged his soigneur and lifted his bike in the air after beating Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) in an intense sprint to the line after an equally intense and aggressively raced stage 16 that saw Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and especially Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) lose time in the battle for places on the podium.
Valverde gained 42 seconds on the Colombian and 1:47 on the struggling Sicilian to jump above him into third overall. Valverde is 3:23 down on Kruijswijk but only 23 seconds down on Chaves.
"I had two big goals before the race: to win a stage and secure a place on the podium. Now we got one and we're there for the other one," Valverde argued.
"There are still two big stages to come and I'm happy how my Giro is going. The team is strong and now were even first in team competition, too. I'm enjoying the Giro and I now regret not coming before. Now I'm happy to be here."
Valverde had promised to be aggressive on the short but mountainous stage from Bressanone to Andalo and his Movistar team pushed the pace before the Passo della Mendola at the halfway point. Valverde made several attacks and ensured he was in the select front group that later distanced Nibali and ensured that Chaves never caught them.
"We went at a high speed to drop his team and isolate him but he defend himself well and even when we attacked. He then worked with us and controlled us all," Valverde said with respect as Kruijswijk sat down next to him in the press conference room and the two shook hands.
"I think he's the strongest rider in this Giro d'Italia. There are still two tough days to go but he's clearly got the strength and the know-how. I think Kruijswijk will win this Giro but I want the podium."
Despite losing his own chance of overall success on the mountain stage to Corvara, when he suffered at altitude and lost three minutes to Kruijswijk, Valverde refused to look back, preferring to hope for the best and a podium place after the final mountain stages in the Alps on Friday and Saturday.
"This is my first win at the Giro d'Italia. This is my first Giro so I'm really happy. I have to be; we work really hard to get the results. It's not easy to do well and win a stage," he pointed out.
"I can't look back. I know I lost a lot of time but I prefer to look forward. I did a good time trial and I'm looking towards the future. I'd be up there for sure without losing time on the stage to Corvara but that's how things are and how they should be."
"I don't know if the podium has been decided. Kruijswijk is very, very strong, so it'll be very difficult to crack him. Nibali is fourth just behind me but for sure he'll attack too. He's classy and will try to knock me off the podium but I'll fight all the way to Turin."