Volta a Catalunya race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) came within a whisker of taking his third stage victory in four days, as the Spaniard rolled back the years and sprinted for the line in Reus on Saturday, narrowly losing out on stage 6 to Daryl Impey (Orica-Scott).
After Movistar teammate José Joaquín Rojas led him out, Valverde charged round one side of breakaway Italian duo of Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing) and Dario Cataldo (Astana) as they faded within sight of the line. But Impey, having darted around the other side, proved to be just a little faster.
Even so, for Valverde, having won on the mountain top finish of Lo Port the day before, taking a second place in a reduced bunch sprint – a specialty in which he used to shine when he turned pro more than a decade ago – was a fine effort. Furthermore, on a stage where Chris Froome (Team Sky), previously second overall, lost more than 25 minutes in the mountains that preceded the long drop down to the finish in Reus, Valverde's overall lead is now even stronger than it was 24 hours before.
"It was a very hard day, a very fast start, and the race broke apart on the first climb, but not so much on the ascent as on the downhill," Valverde said afterwards. "It [dropping Froome and co.] wasn't planned, but we'd been warned that it was very narrow on both sides of the climb and the whole of our team went to the front, just in case something happened."
"Sky were caught out behind, and we got the gap. We only put one rider on the front, Imanol Erviti, but there was a lot of collaboration between all the teams, there was no way they could catch us again."
In the concluding segment of the stage, Valverde said that Movistar had not deliberately worked behind the two late breakaways, "but the group we were in was catching up with them anyway and I went for the sprint."
Looking ahead to Sunday's stage, Valverde argued that even though his advantage was now nearly a minute on his closest chaser on GC, “we've still got to be very careful, it's a tricky stage. There are various rivals who aren't too far behind. But on paper, at least, it shouldn't be too hard. There will be attacks for sure, Alberto's sure to go for it."
Indeed, Contador was the one GC rival who tried to attack on the last first-category climb, although he eased up quickly as Movistar upped the pace behind, and no other potential allies showed any interest in trying to dent Movistar's domination.
With Contador’s brief rebellion quashed, on what was a superb stage for Movistar, Marc Soler moved up into third overall and will – barring disaster in Sunday's final stage – take the overall in the white jersey competition. At the same time, Valverde, following his brace of stage wins, is now mathematically guaranteed the victory in the Volta's King of the Mountains classification as well.
Indeed, after two first places and a second on Saturday, the only thing stopping Valverde from leading the Volta's points classification as well is that, for some mysterious reason best known to the organisers, the race doesn't have one.
What is certain is that Valverde is comfortably en route to taking his second career Volta a Catalunya outright victory. Should his lead remain the same after the Montjuïc circuit on Sunday, and having added on another six seconds to his GC advantage thanks to the time bonus for second on Saturday, Valverde's overall advantage of 53 seconds will be the biggest in the week-long race since Manuel Beltrán won the Volta by 57 seconds over Robert Heras back in 1999. Should Valverde repeat his 2015 stage win in Montjuïc park again, of course, his final advantage will be even bigger – and his domination of the race even clearer.