Given his staggering success rate in the Ruta del Sol, the sight of four-times overall winner and race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) struggling on the Ruta's sole summit finish was perhaps the most surprising of another stage where the sparks truly flew amongst the favourites.
However, Valverde was anything but downcast after losing the lead to Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). Third at the line, seven seconds down on Contador, represented a minimal loss and given he is only five seconds down overall, Valverde remains truly in the fray for the overall win.
The big questionmark, of course, concerns Valverde's ability to bounce back in a time trial in a race where, having won it a record-breaking four times, nothing less than overall victory really counts. It is certainly going to be hard, given he has riders as tried and tested as Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Wout Poels (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) well-placed and clearly in form for Friday's decisive race against the clock.
That said, Valverde has won time trials in the past, including the Spanish Nationals, and his underlying form - as shown by a stage win in Granada and a spectacular lone victory and 70 km individual breakaway in Murcia last weekend - is obviously hardly poor.
Still, whereas last year on the Ruta's hardest climb at Peñas Blancas, Valverde managed to drop the field and win the race, this time the boot was on the other foot. But although win number 100 in his palmares will have to wait for now, he was certainly upbeat despite Thursday's defeat.
"I got better and better as the climb went on and finally I could limit my losses," Valverde, dropped as soon as Contador attacked three kilometres from the summit, said at the finish. "There was a point when Contador was 18 seconds ahead on the climb and I thought I'd had it, but finally things got better and I don't feel like I've lost the Ruta today."
As for his chances of taking a fifth Ruta win outright, Valverde, five seconds down on leader Contador, argued, “I have to be realistic, my rivals could well be better placed than me to do it. Tomorrow's time trial will be very hard, and the others are very good at racing against the clock.”
"But I've already got a stage win in the bag, I got third today and I'm third overall. I can't complain."
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