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Valverde climbs Vuelta a Espana standings in fraught finale

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Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). (Image credit: Tim de Waele/
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Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) (Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Peter Sagan took second on stage 7 of the Vuelta a Espana.

Peter Sagan took second on stage 7 of the Vuelta a Espana. (Image credit: Tim de Waele/
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Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images Sport)

As the dust settled on stage 7's brutally unpredictable finale, Alejandro Valverde is now the best-placed of the Vuelta a Espana's top contenders, moving from fifth into second overall behind Groupama-FDJ's Rudy Molard.

Since the Vuelta started last Friday, Movistar's official line is that Nairo Quintana is their main, and indeed only, GC leader and Valverde's victory on stage 2's uphill finish in Caminito del Rey was so widely expected, there was no speculation to the contrary at that point.

However, Valverde's strong showing at the much more mountainous stage finishing Alto de Alfacar on Tuesday suggested that the Spaniard is in excellent climbing form and - after moving ahead slightly in the finale - his GC options remained intact.

Now, after stage 7's rollercoaster finale, Valverde not only took some bonus seconds in a late hot spot sprint but also claimed third on the stage, moving up to second overall. Even if he is not looking at the general classification, his options in that area are currently in better shape than any of the other top names.

The jury is out on what Valverde's stellar race so far will mean anything for Movistar's longer-term GC game plan. And what happens at the Covatilla on Sunday will probably allow a much clearer picture to emerge.

Having come through a finale fraught with dangers where the crashes and time gaps spread amongst the GC favourites like wildfire, one consequence is that Valverde has gained time, most notably on Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), one of the worst affected in the crashes, who slumped from second to fifth.

Rather than time gains or gaining places on GC, Valverde told Spanish TV that "The best thing about today was not having any incidents, it's been a very complicated last part of the stage."

Valverde described the closing kilometres, which he had not come to check out beforehand, as "very tough, much tougher than I expected. The roads were in very bad shape in general. There were points where the roads got a bit better and somebody tried to take a risk, then somebody from Sky fell, I don't know who it was - and then the next three fell off too.

"I was fourth in the line and I didn't fall, but after that happened I was very careful." Referring to Kwiatkowski's fall, Valverde said, "On a sporting level, I never want anything like that to happen to a rival, but that's racing for you."

Valverde added that he felt good, snatching second place in an intermediate sprint and "despite losing to [Peter] Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the sprint for the stage. To be honest, I thought he wasn't there in the front group, I only saw that he was when he beat me at the finish. As for [Tony] Gallopin [AG2R La Mondiale]" - the stage winner who attacked in the closing kilometres - "well I can't keep everybody under control."

As for the million-dollar question about his GC options, Valverde remained diplomatic, but he did not rule it out, either, saying "We'll have to wait and see. There's still a long way to go."

Now the points classification leader, Valverde is 47 seconds behind race leader Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ), who - with all due respect to the Frenchman - is not considered a favourite for winning the race outright.

Valverde's successful day meant he was in a good mood afterwards. The 38-year-old even joked to one radio station afterwards during a live interview that he was now growing a beard to compensate for an increasing lack of hair "on top."

Meanwhile Quintana, despite confirming he was not on top of his game in the early part of the Vuelta, was equally upbeat and convinced he had now turned a corner form-wise for the better.

At one point late in the stage, Quintana could be seen off the front at the head of a small group of favourites, although the Colombian said that rather than attacking per se, his objective was to reel in two late breakaways, Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) and Gallopin, "so that Valverde could go for it in the final sprint."

Unlike Valverde's incident-free ride, Quintana said he punctured late on the stage, but "The team was very attentive with Richard [Carapaz], who gave me his bike.

"So I could finish with all the other favourites, and I even tried to help Alejandro get the stage win but that didn't work out. The important thing is that we didn't lose time."

After a day of falls and punctures where, as the cliche has it, it might not have been possible to win the Vuelta, but it could well have been lost, Quintana coincided with Valverde it had been a very tough stage 7.

"And tomorrow [stage 8] is another one," he added. "Let's hope we can get through tomorrow and then we can almost say that a new Vuelta starts. Certainly, the Covatilla [on stage 9] favours us a lot more."

"I'm feeling fine, though. The first few days I was feeling really rubbish but now I'm feeling a lot better."

With a stronger-than-expected Valverde, and Quintana convinced he is now on the up, too, Movistar's options in the Vuelta are surely even better than a week ago when they were already considered one of the top teams for their home Grand Tour.

How they exploit that advantage, though, remains to be seen, but after their below-expectations Tour de France, there is certainly everything to play for this August and September in Spain.

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, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.