Alejandro Valverde moved one stage closer to overall victory in the Vuelta a España on Saturday, simultaneously extending his overall lead and exorcising the ghost of his maillot oro loss in nearby Granada three years ago.
The Caisse d'Epargne rider ended the day 27 seconds ahead of Robert Gesink (Rabobank), and 1:02 ahead of Ivan Basso. Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto), who had started the day seven seconds back, lost time due to a puncture and slipped to fifth, just over one and a half minutes down.
"The gaps were bigger today than they were yesterday," a content - and increasingly confident - Valverde said after the stage. "I earned a few seconds because I sprinted for the third place, and I keep on gaining a few seconds every day compared to my rivals. Gesink, Basso and Mosquera are still very close but Samuel Sánchez lost something more, even if he recovered very well in the final part."
Three years ago the Spaniard saw his maillot oro pass to Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) when the latter attacked on the descent to the finish. He had no such worries this time; Vino left the race yesterday, a shadow of his former self, and Valverde showed plenty of strength on the final climb. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) was the only rival to gain time on him, the Spaniard jumping away towards the summit and hitting the line 24 seconds ahead.
Valverde briefly went after the Xacobeo Galicia rider, catching him once but then easing back when the aggressive climber went again. However the race leader's acceleration put both Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) under pressure, giving Valverde another confidence boost as the race heads towards its final week.
Evan's time loss was the biggest plus for him, although he said after the stage that he didn't seek to profit from his rival's misfortune. "He was the victim of a puncture, but to tell the truth I did not know," he stated. "When I looked behind he was no longer there - I thought he was dropped because he could not follow the rhythm."
There remains eight more days, in which the Caisse d'Epargne team must control all attacks. He feels certain the team is up to the task. "My teammates did a great job today. It is very important to know I can reckon on such a team. It makes me feel very confident."
A visibly emotional Cadel Evans wheeled across the finish line well adrift of Valverde, Gesink and Basso. He was also distanced by Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel Euskadi), who sat on the Silence Lotto rider when he was chasing and then jumped him.
"I don't deserve that," he said, shaking his head, "I do everything f*** right in this sport. I don't deserve that shit."
He declined to comment further, taking a jacket and then rolling down the mountain towards his team bus. However he gave a more detailed reaction on his website on Saturday evening, faulting neutral service and photographers for costing him his chance of returning to the other GC riders.
"All good until a ridiculous misfortune when I punctured," he wrote. "Puncturing at that moment is bad luck, [but] the imbeciles from Shimano neutral service COULD NOT CHANGE MY WHEEL! [his caps] Err...slight problem when the GC group is riding away from you on the second-last hilltop finish of the Vuelta. So of course the TV and photographers want to capture this dramatic moment. They then blocked the team whilst doing so, leaving Nick the quick-thinking team mechanic running up the hill through a traffic jam with my spare bike.
"Well at least I could continue....1:23 later.... Now I'm fourth at some 1:23 - by coincidence? After the BS I have been through just to get to this race, I am not so sure I deserved that."
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