A well-calculated stage victory for Alejandro Valverde on Wednesday in the Volta a Catalunya's uphill finish at La Molina poured oil on some distinctly troubled waters for Movistar - and sent a clear message to his rivals that despite the setbacks, Valverde still counts for the GC battle, too.
In the space of just one roller coaster 24-hour period, things initially could not have been better for Valverde when he and Movistar won the team time trial on Tuesday and Valverde moved into a dominating position overall just behind teammate and race leader Jose Joaquin Rojas. Eight years on, a second Volta a Catalunya overall victory for Valverde seemed more than in the cards.
However, the different punishments meted out by the UCI commissaires saw Valverde first move into the race lead after Rojas was given a three-minute penalty - but into a social media storm of controversy at the same time, over whether it was fair Valverde had not been penalised as well. Then things went even more pear-shaped for the Movistar leader when on Wednesday morning, prior to stage 3, the commissaires opted to give a one-minute blanket penalty to the entire squad. Suddenly Valverde dipped from first to 15th overall.
However, the Spaniard bounced back with a vengeance at La Molina just a few hours later, claiming a stage victory ahead of last year's winner on the climb, Dan Martin (Quick Step Floors), and providing a much-needed boost to team morale.
The 2009 Volta a Catalunya winner is also fourth overall, too, just 45 seconds back on new race leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) and very much back in the running for victory on Sunday.
"The last 50 kilometres were very fast, and the last kilometre was even quicker," Valverde, well wrapped up against the cold, told reporters after the fifth Volta stage win of his career. "Fortunately, we had [teammate] Marc Soler there controlling it all, Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) made a move, Martin went after him and then I went after Martin and got around him, too."
Valverde denied that there was any sense of revenge in taking the win at the end of a short but intensely rocky period for Movistar. But despite insisting he was not going to talk about Wednesday morning's time penalty, the Spaniard ended up providing a spirited defence of his team's performance.
"Revenge?" he said rhetorically when asked by one reporter if he had a point to prove. "No, there's no sense of revenge at all. All I wanted was the stage win."
However, when another journalist pointed out that this stage 'could not be taken away', Valverde responded quickly, "I hope not," before joking, somewhat darkly, "but you know, maybe they will take this one away as well."
Asked directly about the whole series of incidents, Valverde began by insisting that he preferred "not to give an opinion. You all know what I think, and I'm not going to get involved in arguments."
However, Valverde, visibly still annoyed by the commissaires' decision, then went on to outline his position in detail. "In our own minds, we know we won fairly and that's all there is to it. The commissaires have made that decision. That's the decision they've taken and that's all there is to it."
Discussing the time trial itself, Valverde argued that, "There was a commissaire with us all the time" - something which has not been confirmed given the Movistar team had just overtaken the Roompot squad and the commissaire was reportedly delayed - "and at no point did he see that there was a push."
Referring to Rojas placing his hand on his teammates' backs to, as a Movistar team press release on Wednesday put it, "warn them that they must take his position into the team row," Valverde said, "There was touching, yes, but that's logical and you could see that. If they're talking about precedents, they should look back at other races where riders touch each other [placing hands on each other's backs in team time trials] and there will be more 'touches' like that in the future."
When it was put to Valverde that the commissaires must have made a mistake if they first gave one rider a three-minute penalty and then meted out a one-minute penalty to all instead, Valverde agreed wholeheartedly.
He also singled out young Catalan teammate Marc Soler for praise after Soler turned in a strong protecting ride for Valverde on much of the lower slopes of the Molina climb and is now sixth overall. He has, in the process, provisionally captured the Best Young Rider's jersey for Movistar too.
Having commented again that he would not give his opinion about the team time trial penalties, Valverde went on to agree that Friday's ascent of Lo Port would be very demanding but pointed out that the weather - set to be very rainy on Friday - could well make it even more challenging. But in the first mountain challenge, in any case, Movistar, and Valverde, have struck back in style.
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