Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) may have had a relatively quiet stage defending his narrow one second overall lead in the Ruta del Sol on Saturday, but he predicted that his closest rival Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) would return to the fray on Sunday's final leg of the race.
Ironically enough for a race called 'the Road of the Sun' in Spanish, after four days of dry weather, the Ruta is forecast to end with a heavy rainfall on Sunday's hilly 151-kilometre stage from Setenil de la Bodega to Coin. Add in a very lumpy trek through the Sierras of Cadiz in the first half of the stage, a third category climb towards the last 20 kilometres and - above all - a Contador at just one second behind overall, and Valverde insisted the sparks will likely fly again.
Memories are still fresh, too, of the Contador-inspired early stage ambush in last September's Vuelta a España that all but ended Chris Froome's chances of victory in the race.
"Today was pretty straightforward even though the gaps are so small you had to be on the alert all the way through," Valverde told reporters at the stage four finish in central Seville. "Tomorrow - that's going to be another story."
"The rain's going to be one risk factor; the roads could well be slippery because here it doesn't rain so much and we'll have to be careful." On the plus side, Valverde said he knew most of the roads, particularly the last segment near Malaga, but he agreed that the terrain was suitable for Contador to attack, too.
"Particularly the first 100 kilometres are very complicated, although to try and go for it so far from the finish is completely mad - there's such a flat second part to the stage. What most worries me are the rain and the crashes."
Contador, who had an equally trouble free day, played down his chances of trying a last ditch assault on Valverde's lead, saying "it's going to be very difficult. I don't see that there's really the right kind of terrain. It's true that it's going to rain, but we don't want to take too many risks."
"Even if there's only one second's difference between us, it's like there was a whole lot more. I've just got to think about objectives further ahead." He did not rule out, in fact, working for his teammate Fabio Felline on Sunday "who's fast in small group sprints. We're building a great kind of team spirit in this team, they've worked very hard for me here and I'm very grateful to them."
Not everybody, though, was so convinced that Contador was really so resigned to finishing as runner-up overall in the Ruta del Sol for a second time, and by even less of a margin than in 2015 when he lost to Chris Froome (Sky) by two seconds. When asked if he thought Contador would attack, Valverde argued "if it was anybody else, I would say no. Knowing Alberto, though, it could be a very different story."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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