Fifteen years after his first success in the Vuelta a España, the beat just goes on and on for Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in Spain, with no less a star than Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) roundly defeated by El Bala in the Vuelta’s stage 8 on Saturday.
Second on Friday ahead of Valverde in Pozo Alcon, this time around Sagan did not wait for the Spaniard to start accelerating, but opened fire first on the technical ascent up through the mining town of Almaden.
However, Valverde calculated his effort a little better than the ruling world champion and - as he had done with former rainbow jersey Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) at El Caminito del Rey last Sunday - the Spaniard managed to nip past in the final metres.
Second overall, and dubbed ‘the virtual leader’ of the Vuelta by at least one Spanish newspaper, Valverde comes into Sunday’s crucial mountain stage the best placed of the top names. But the questionmarks over whether he really will make an all-out GC bid remain.
“I was not going to try to lose time, but really from tomorrow [Sunday], we will see what happens, whether we [Movistar] concentrate on [teammate and Vuelta leader Nairo] Quintana, or whether I count as well. Above all, I’m very relaxed about it all,” Valverde said after the 121st win of his career.
“I don’t know if I can get the red jersey, but it’s clear I’m going well. It will be the first real mountain stage of the Vuelta and anything can happen, and I’m going to start the stage with the mentality of trying to be up there.
“Tomorrow, let’s see if one or the other can be up there, and if it’s both of us, then so much the better.”
Sixth in the Covatilla in 2006, the last time he went up it, and 14th in an even more distant 2004 on the same ascent, Valverde says that he does not have particularly good memories of the 10 kilometre climb.
Valverde may yet have doubts about his climbing condition for a major mountain stage. But his performance in Almaden, despite having to stop pedalling with 200 metres to go when he was unintentionally a little blocked in by Sagan and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), speaks volumes about his all-around form. What made Vuelta stage win number 11 even more memorable, perhaps, was that Valverde had initially not wanted to go for victory.
“[Movistar Sports director jose Luis] Arrieta said it was a really good finish for me, and I said, 'I’m not going to go for the stage, I’m not going to fight for it, all I want is a good placing.'
“But the team did a great job, and I was helped because the field was strung out by the way the climb began with 500 metres to go. Then I got on Peter’s wheel, followed him, followed him and followed him, and then I could get up there, and here I am.
“It was very special to do that. Peter really wanted the win today, his team really worked for it, and then I could beat him. I was going past him on the right and Peter, without wanting to do it, went to the right, and there was no space between him and the barriers.
“So then I tried to get past on the left, and then Nizzolo was there and so I had to stop pedalling for a moment. But I could get past him, finally, too, and go for the win.”
In terms of cycling history, Valverde’s latest win pushes him a little higher in the ranking of the all-time stars. With 11 Vuelta a España stage victories to his name, he is now equal third in terms of the most prolific winners in the Spanish Grand Tour, alongside Agustin Tamames and Julian Berrendero. Only Txomin Perurena with 12 and Delio Rodriguez, with a near-unbeatable total of 39, are still ahead of him.
Asked why he could, time and again, do so well in the Vuelta, whereas in the Tour de France Valverde has never shone so brightly, the 38-year-old said, “It’s all in my head, I think. The Vuelta is a race where I’ve always done well, it was the first Grand Tour where I really began to shine brightly. I really prepare for the Tour, train hard at altitude, but then I get to the Vuelta and I always go better.”
As for the world championships - a race where Valverde has been competitive for as long as the Vuelta, with his first silver medal there back in Hamilton in 2003, but never an outright win - Valverde agreed that beating Sagan in Spain was a boost to his confidence.
But before expectations get too high, he pointed out that Innsbruck would be a “completely different race to this stage today. It’ll be far more difficult. We certainly won’t be tussling for a good position in the last few metres.”
In any case, first comes the Vuelta, and in particular, la Covatilla, which looks set to decide Valverde’s race from hereon. “La roja [the red of leader] is not an obsession,” Valverde insisted.
“I’ll take this race on the day by day, as I have done up to now, and if I lose time on Sunday, then I’ll see what I can do for the Worlds.”