Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) turned in a blisteringly strong time trial performance to regain the overall Ruta del Sol lead, albeit by one second, but preached caution given there are still two stages left to race.
Valverde recognised that the hardest stages are now behind him, however, and indeed the last two stages of the Ruta could well come down to bunch sprints.
"I'’ve always thought that whoever was leader at this point in the Ruta would have won the race. But Alberto [Contador] (Trek-Segafredo) is a formidable rival, and on top of that, it’s forecast to rain heavily on Sunday," Valverde observed. "We’ll have to be very careful, but in any case, I’ve turned in a good chrono and I was very pleased with how it went."
A former Spanish time trial champion, Valverde’s early season form has seen him win the Ruta del Sol prologue in other years, although his time trial performances have always been a shade uneven. Only last February, for example, he flailed somewhat in the Ruta’s longer stage 4 time trial in Alhaurin de la Torre won by Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing), taking eighth.
This time, though, in the much shorter time trial test in Lucena, Valverde missed out by a scant second against LottoNL-Jumbo winner Victor Campenaerts and albeit by a scant second, too, is back in the lead as well. Considering on stage 2’s final ascent of Mancha Real he was convinced at one point that Contador had won the race outright, 24 hours later Valverde had turned the tables back in his favour in style.
"I felt very good, even if it was a very short, all-out effort," Valverde said. But he had also been thorough, coming earlier in the year to check out the time trial route - a sign of how seriously he takes even the smallest race - and then reconnoitring it again on Friday morning.
"A second isn’t any kind of advantage and anything can happen, but the toughest three stages were the first three," Valverde added. "I can’t relax for a moment and even more so with Alberto so close behind. But I’ve won one stage, finished third in another and second in another, missing out by only one second" - netting him the points jersey lead as well as the overall - "and whatever happens would be great."
Victory number 100 of his career is beckoning fast, but as Valverde puts it, "What I’m really pleased about is that I’m going to be 37 soon and I’m still feeling as good as I did last year and the year before that, if not better. That’s a real boost to my motivation. On top of that, look at the calibre of the rivals here. The top 10 overall wouldn’t be out of place in a Paris-Nice, for example, and being able to beat them is important."
As the years go by, Valverde says mentally he has been getting tougher, rather than - as sometimes happens with more veteran racers - losing the plot.
"I’ve been getting more and more consistent and I’m feeling more and more confident," Valverde said. "Why? Because I’ve achieved almost everything I can do in cycling and now I don’t feel under pressure any more. Combine that with being in good shape, and that means things tend to go better than ever before."