Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) shrugged off any disappointment he might have felt after Tuesday's time trial to deliver one of his strongest performances to date on this Vuelta a Espana's climbs on Wednesday.
So far Valverde has mainly gained time on ascents that clearly favoured him, with uphill sprint victories on Caminito del Rey on stage 2 and Almaden on stage 8.
But after a blistering early performance on stage 4 at Alfacar, the first summit finish of the race, Valverde has largely been stalemating or losing small amounts of time to the other top names on most of the subsequent longer climbs.
On Wednesday's ultra-difficult, 7km ascent to Balcon de Bizkaia, however, Valverde was by far the most active of the top GC contenders. He first tested the waters early on with a hard attack, and his final, drawn-out acceleration for the line finally netted him eight seconds on a distanced Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
After losing seven to Yates on the time trial stage - when he had been tipped to take the lead - thanks to his bounceback Valverde is now just 25 seconds behind the Briton. With two big mountain stages left to come, could the Spaniard now have the edge on Yates on the climbs?
"To tell the truth, things are not going at all badly," Valverde said. "Eight seconds on Yates - that's good, even if he’s still ahead.
"We knew that today could be a day when anybody could have a hard time of it, coming after a rest day and a very difficult time trial. A lot of people suffered."
Valverde commented that the entire stage had been very fast, culminating with a flat-out ascent of the first, easier, part of the seven kilometres Balcon de Bizkaia.
"I felt much better than yesterday, but I wasn't sure where to attack, although I knew I wanted to. I spoke to Nairo [Quintana], and he told me he was doing OK," Valverde said, although stage 17's events have proved that not to be the case. "But in the third week of a Grand Tour, you never can tell how your body is going to react.
"Astana went very strongly in the first part of the climb, but when the really tough part began, I went for it to see how other people would react. I was very worried about [Steven] Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and he lost time. There are maybe two, three or four of us left in the GC battle, but there's still a long way to go. And the gaps today were small, again, but at any point they can suddenly turn a lot bigger. In any case, I’m sitting exams every day, and I’m getting top marks in all of them."
Valverde was somewhat cagey, as he has been since Malaga, of labelling himself as leader of the team, but after Quintana's second difficult day, with the Colombian dropping out of the top five overall, the doubts have surely all but disappeared as to which of the two deserves the title more. Valverde is also seemingly to have recovered better from combining the Tour de France and the Vuelta.
"Nairo's lost a bit more time, and he's got a bit more of an uphill struggle," Valverde said. "We haven't reached the hotel yet, and we haven't talked it through. But right now the race is looking better for me."
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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