Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) took a crucial, but not decisive, step forward toward the overall victory in the Vuelta a España as he fended off his rivals with a solid time trial performance at Torrelavega.
Thirteenth on the stage, Yates gained seven seconds on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to slightly extend his overall lead, although Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) moved into third overall, 51 seconds back.
However, he has now pushed two more of his most dangerous rivals on the climbs, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team), from 33 and 43 seconds, respectively, to well beyond the minute barrier.
For Yates, having managed to defend himself so successfully in the mountains, this was perhaps the most crucial stage of the third week. But the Briton remains cautious.
"I'm happy with my performance," Yates said as he took questions from the press seated next to stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team). "I know I extended my lead. It was a good ride.
"I took things pretty conservatively in the opening part of the time trial and then gave it full gas in what was left in the final," he said. "I had a good day, but there's not much else to say. I'm very wary of the coming stages, particularly the mountain stages in Andorra and the Basque Country. It's still going to be difficult."
Yates said he was still worried about what had happend to him in the Giro d'italia, where he faded in the mountains following a difficult time trial to defend his race lead.
"It's always a possibility," he said of a similar demise. "I still don't know why I cracked, maybe it's just one of those things. I hope not to have a day like that."
On the plus side, he said, his sensations were improving day by day.
The Briton was still markedly cautious about his chances overall, repeating that his rivals, whilst more distanced, were still very close on GC. And although he had said on Monday's rest day that the Vuelta time trial was one of the most important stages remaining between here and Madrid, Yates continues to emphasise that the three big mountain stages also will play a big part in success or failure.
"I was not worried about today," he insisted. "I've been slowly improving in my time trialling, even if I'll never be like Rohan here," - gesturing to the Australian, sitting to his left - "I was confident in my abilities."
Yates was notably very diplomatic when asked if Movistar's playing two leaders' cards, rather than just one, acted in his favour.
"They are both great champions, and I'm sure they'll make it difficult for me," he said. "They are still very close on GC."
As for what remains of the third week, Yates said all the upcoming stages are very difficult.
"I don't know [Wednesday's] climb, but we all know how hard racing in the Basque Country can be, and the Andorra climbs will be filthy," he said. "I'll try and defend the jersey as best as I can. My rivals are really close, but I'll try."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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