Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) started this year's Ruta del Sol exactly as he polished it off last year: as the race leader and with a stage victory. The Spaniard won the opening stage in a six-man sprint ahead of Sky's Wout Poels and Sebastian Reichenbach (FDJ).
Valverde said after the finish in Granada, "we couldn't have got off to a better start," although he also warned, "any of the riders who are ahead now on GC could win on tomorrow's [stage 2] summit finish." In that case, the ball could be in somebody else's court.
As the leader, Valverde is in pole position to take such a stage victory. On Saturday Valverde clinched a superb win in the Vuelta a Murcia one-day race, and so is clearly in impressive form. His four previous overall wins in the Ruta del Sol also make him the favourite.
Form-wise Valverde always seems to start his season strongly in the mountains. Aside from his 70-kilometer gallop over a first category climb, the Collado Bermejo, in Murcia on Saturday, his final stage triumph in the Ruta del Sol last year at the summit of Cumbres del Sol was netted when he broke away alone on what is, on paper, a much harder climb. He still won by a considerable margin for February – 36 seconds –against no less a rival than Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).
Valverde played a clever strategic game on the Alto de Monachil on stage 1 Wednesday, responding to all of Alberto Contador's attacks, sitting on wheels to regain strength when he needed to, then blasting away with his one real attack just before the summit. After sitting up and waiting for Ion Izagirre (Bahrein-Merida) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), the 37-year-old still had the strength to take a classy stage win in Granada.
"It's been a very hard day, particularly as Trek-Segafredo laid down a very fast pace throughout the stage," Valverde told reporters between bouts of receiving a seemingly non-stop stream of awards at the finish.
"We went up the last climb extremely hard, Alberto went for it very early on," Valverde observed. "It was a lot of cat and mouse; one guy would attack, then the other, then we'd watch each other. Then I went for it over the top, but it was very difficult to get a gap, so I decided to sit up and wait and go for it in a sprint."
As for the overall, Valverde was cautious, given there are still ten riders all within five seconds of each other on GC. Furthermore, there are no time bonuses for stage finishes this year, which would give a rider like Valverde a significant advantage in a race often decided by less than 10 seconds. "It's not going to be easy, there are a lot of strong riders here," he observed, "I think stage 2 and the time trial on stage 3 will both have a part in deciding what happens."
"In any case, I've got a win and whatever happens is whatever happens. Alberto's very strong, he's been training hard in the Canaries and it's clear he wanted to take the race by the scruff of the neck. He caused a lot of damage, but when the two of us got away, I had to try and catch my breath and that was when the Sky riders [Diego Rosa, Wout Poels and Mikel Landa] all got back on."
No matter: Valverde now has 99 career wins in the bag, his eighth stage win in the Ruta del Sol, and his second victory in five days. If he has become the man to beat, given Valverde's track record in the Ruta del Sol, this is hardly an unfamiliar role for El Bala to handle in Andalucia.
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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 Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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