It was 215 days ago that Alejandro Valverde was splayed out on a rain-soaked road in Düsseldorf, his 2017 Tour de France over before the end of the stage 1 time trial and his kneecap shattered and talus bone broken by the impact of crashing into a metal barrier. Some thought his career was surely over, but the Spanish veteran put an end to any doubts of a comeback on Thursday by taking out a convincing victory in stage 2 of Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana to claim the race lead.
Valverde, 37, bridged across to an attack by Jakob Fuglsang on the final ascent of the Garbí with 33km to go, shattering the peloton near the end of the 154km stage from Bétera to Albuixech. They were joined by Luis-Leon Sánchez, which should have given Astana the tactical advantage, but Valverde proved too strong in the finish.
The Movistar rider leads the race by four seconds over Sánchez, with Fuglsang at six seconds and the rest of the contenders at 29 seconds.
"It makes me so, so happy to get this victory after everything I had to go through during the last few months," Valverde said. "The seconds we put on the rest today might become decisive, too.
"At the Garbí climb I was feeling like I had good legs and decided to attack, profiting from the fact that Fuglsang had moved meters before. Luisle bridged back into the downhill and we really got on well with each other afterwards. That good cooperation and the fact that we three were all strong riders made it possible to reach the finish, even if Sky and other squads pushed with all they had."
Valverde had already had some solid results in the Challenge Mallorca - a third and a fourth place - so he was not surprised he could win the stage on Thursday.
"I was feeling great training before the first races, and last week in Mallorca I saw I was on the pace of the strongest ones and knew that it'd be possible to try and win a stage here. I got this chance and didn't want to wait for another one - the sooner the better."
Thanks to the healthy gap the trio enjoyed over the first chasing group, which contained pre-race favourites Wout Poels (Sky), Primoz Roglic (LottoNl-Jumbo) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), the chances of an overall victory are increased, especially since only 25 riders are within one minute of Valverde's lead.
The next obstacle is a 23km team time trial from Poble Nou de Benitatxell to Calpe before a mountain top finish to the Alto de Las Canteras on Saturday.
"It's not a bad TTT for us tomorrow, but it's a dangerous one, so we must stay focused as well as cautious, trying to not to lose too much time so we can stand a chance on Saturday. Let's see what we can do after today's win and tomorrow's result," Valverde said.