Valverde: I'll settle for the podium in Madrid

Third in the Mirador de Ezaro stage today and fourth overall at the Vuelta a España, not to mention still leading the King of the Mountains competition, Spain's Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) says that he would settle for a podium finish in Madrid.

The 2009 Vuelta winner, second overall in 2006 and third way back in 2003, says that with 72 days of racing this season - compared to, up to today, 55 for Chris Froome, 63 for Joaquim Rodriguez and a mere 12 for Alberto Contador - and a season that stretches back to the Tour Down Under, "it's all going way better than I thought it would given the circumstances. But there's a lot of hard racing ahead."

Asked about his rivals, Valverde says he is now convinced that "Purito (Rodriguez) can win. Alberto [Contador] is going very well, but Purito is in top form. [Chris] Froome seems to be fading a little, perhaps he's tired after racing the Tour, but he's still in the fight."

As for the Mirador de Ezaro, Valverde said "I didn't lose too much time, it was close. Purito is unstoppable on these types of climbs, that are short, and really explosively steep.

"I'd seen it on video, but not actually gone up it in person. It was a great climb for Purito and Alberto so when they went for it, I didn't even try to follow them. My tactics were just to go steady then give it everything in the last 200 metres.

"Ancares and Lagos will decide a lot, but the final stage in Asturias (the third and final mountain top finish of Cuitu Negru) will decide even more."

Valverde - who was brought in as a last-minute option by Movistar after last year's winner Juanjo Cobo fell ill - was certainly in a good mood at the summit of Ezaro.

Asked by a reporter why he was growing a beard, Valverde said "people say if you don't shave then you don't lose your strength. But I can't complain, I finished third and didn't lose that much time.

"It was a short climb, and you can't form too many conclusions from that," said Contador, who had checked out the climb beforehand.

"But in any case" - referring to Froome and Valverde - "it's good to put time into my rivals.

"We can't say what's going to happen next, though, there's still a long way to go to Madrid. And my objectives are still some way off in the future."

As for Chris Froome, Sky team sources said that the Briton was not dissatisfied with the time he had lost, considering it was a climb that suited Rodriguez and Contador and that there was still everything to play for.

Concerning Sky teammate Xabi Zandio, who crashed out of the race close to the finish with injuries to his face, the team was still waiting on further reports from the hospital before releasing a definitive communique about his condition.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

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 IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.