He may have been a late call-up to the Vuelta a España, but Alejandro Valverde has been quicker than most to make his mark on his home race, outsprinting Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) by a narrow margin to claim the stage win, the overall lead from team-mate Jonathan Castroviejo, the points lead and the white ‘combined jersey’ lead.
Valverde’s main target for 2012 was the overall at the Tour de France, and although that did not work out after he crashed several times in the first week, he still came back to take the last stage in the Pyrenees.
However, after Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar) started to fall sick before the Vuelta, suffering from dental problems - and after losing a little time in the final section of Saturday’s team time trial, on Monday’s stage he lost nearly a minute. But Valverde, who won the Vuelta in 2009 prior to his ban for his links to the Operacion Puerto from January 2010 to January 2012, appears to be on the up in the nick of time.
“It’s never easy to beat Joaquim Rodriguez but today I was that little sharper than him,” Valverde said, “normally whoever comes through that last corner in first place wins, but today that wasn’t the case. Both he and I deserved to win.”
“I hung on and hung on and finally I could get the win. I’m not surprised by the way Alberto attacked and attacked like that, he’s been the strongest in the world before his ban.”
“I had this stage marked down with a cross, but so did lots of other riders. Either way, we’ve held the lead for three days, won two stages. It’s mission accomplished and anything we get from now on is a bonus.”
Or is it? Can Valverde take the lead all the way to Madrid? “I’m not sure. The team has killed themselves to control the race today, we didn’t get any help at all. Let’s take things on the day by day and every stage that we’ve still got the red jersey, we’ll be happy.”
As for the other three top names with him at the top of Arrate, Valverde said, “Alberto’s incredibly strong, but Joaquim could follow him very easily. It cost Froome a little bit, but with that time trial it’s going to be very difficult to rein him in.”
“It’s Alberto’s way of doing things, he was giving it absolutely everything because that’s the only way he knows to attack,” added Eusebio Unzue, Valverde’s sports director at Movistar.
“Yesterday he went for a time bonus and that was just a warning shot, but today he had the knife between his teeth”- an Italian expression meaning he was really aggressive and keen to achieve his objective - “when he went on those attacks.”
“Froome is perhaps not so brilliant as we saw in the Tour, but it’s early days yet, and it’s been very hot. He could take some time to adapt.”
As for Valverde’s chances of taking a second Vuelta, Unzue said, “he’s a star rider, but [after the Tour de France] probably the tiredness will hit him before the rest. Getting the lead, though, is just what his head needs to keep him going.”
One rider who appears to have far more uneven form is double Vuelta winner Denis Menchov (Katusha), who lost 1 minute 52 seconds. Other victims of Arrate’s short but punchy slopes were Belgium’s Thomas De Gendt (Vancansoleil-DCM). Third in the Giro, says he “has good sensations, but not as good as in the Giro,” and lost 2 minutes 07 seconds, whilst Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) - who came to the race saying he was on the hunt for stage wins in any case - is now nearly four minutes down overall.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.