Four weeks after taking his best ever Tour de France performance, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) became the first of the top overall contenders to triumph in this year’s Vuelta a Espana with a powerful uphill stage win at Vejer de la Frontera.
Often criticised for miscalculating his manouvres, Valverde has barely missed a beat this year in uphill finishes, taking a superb double Ardennes triumph on the Mur de Huy in la Fleche Wallonne and again in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Vejer de la Frontera’s rollercoaster finale was far less well-known, but in its own way no less tricky to handle than the Belgian Classics' final climbs. And after taking Fleche and Liege for a third time this spring, the Movistar veteran proved he was equally spot on four months later when it came to making his last uphill acceleration on the searingly hot, steep ascent in southern Spain, beating Peter Sagan to the line in the process.
“I knew it was a good stage for me, but I had to keep calm and not waste any energy because there is a long way to go in this Vuelta,” Valverde said.
“I knew that Peter Sagan [Tinkoff-Saxo, stage winner on Monday] would be a really dangerous rival. His team were working during the stage and that was a clear sign of how confident he felt.”
“But once I saw the 200-metres-to-go banner and how things were looking, I felt sure I could win.” He had not panicked, he said, when Nicolas Roche (Team Sky) had gone on the attack with Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing). “It was all under control.”
“Initially I wasn’t sure exactly when to go for it, but then I followed Rafa Majka (TInkoff-Saxo) as he bridged across and I knew I had Sagan on my wheel because there was a rider’s shadow behind me and it had the silhouette of a pigtail” - Sagan’s hair - "sticking out from under the helmet.” But Valverde said, he remained confident enough that he could then go clear and drop the Slovak, which he duly did.
Valverde’s victory means it remains unclear whom will be the Movistar leader for the Vuelta, himself or Nairo Quintana. Quintana had already shown he had definite designs on the Vuelta with an early attack on Sunday's Caminito del Rey climb, but this time the boot was truly on the other foot as Valverde claimed his ninth Vuelta career stage win, and the Colombian lost the few seconds he had gained on his teammate two days earlier.
“It was a very different climb to Caminito del Reye,” Valverde said, “and on top of that on stage two Nairo [Quintana] was up the road, I couldn’t do more than shadow our rivals once he’d attacked.”
“On Sunday the team did lots of work setting things up for the win and didn’t get it, today we didn’t work at all and we got a victory. But that was one stage and this is another.”
Valverde was reminded that he had cried when he took third place overall this summer in the Tour after years of trying to get on the podium and asked what a stage win in the Vuelta meant for him in comparison.
“Wins like this both make you happy and calm you down, too.” he said. “But either way it’s very important for the team,” with Spain’s only WorldTour squad, and with even higher than usual expectations surrounding the team after their double podium in the Tour de France this summer.
Following Valverde’s win the question of who will be uelta leader for Movistar remains very much up in the air. Quintana had said before the race start on Saturday that whoever is strongest on the climbs will lead. But given both riders have now launched powerful uphill attacks on two different stages, the Movistar leadership ‘issue’ will now arguably remain undecided at least until the ascent to the Alpujarras on Friday’s stage seven.
Asked if he had been striking a blow for the overall by going for the day’s victory, Valverde said, “no, this was striking a blow to win this stage.”
“It was a very good finish for me. But it’s also true that I don’t feel that bad. If I go on feeling this way, I will be fighting for the overall win in the Vuelta.” Asked how he felt compared to the Tour de France - where only Chris Froome and Quintana finished ahead of him - Valverde responded instantly, “I feel the same.”
The next stage in the race that potentially could favour him, Valverde said, “is [stage six] to Cazorla” - a third category summit finish - “but it’s really on the stage to the Alpujarras [stage seven] whre we’ll start to see everybody’s real condition for the mountains and who’s really here to win and lose overall. Then in the second week, the climbing is a lot harder.”