Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) continued to exhibit a notable level of form at the Itzulia Basque Country on Wednesday as the veteran Spaniard notched up a third place on the notoriously difficult summit finish of Ermualde.
Like stage winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Valverde had come to check out the climb beforehand, and just as Pogačar benefited enormously by knowing exactly what he was going to face, the Movistar racer used his experience and the recon to calculate his effort on the Ermualde to perfection.
Following his first victory in two years last Saturday at the GP Miguel Indurain, Valverde's latest result confirms his strong form, and also, on a climb with more than a certain similarity to the Mur de Huy, his performance arguably bodes well for La Flèche Wallonne in two weeks.
Five seconds slower at the finish than Pogačar and Roglič but able to snatch the last time bonus on offer, Valverde has jumped eight places from 13th to fifth overall at 50 seconds, giving him one of the best overall outcomes of the day. And all this, the man from Murcia pointed out after he was caught out by the crash at the foot of the climb that saw both Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) out of the main action, and in Kelderman's case, a DNF.
"Woods and Kelderman's crash happened right in front of me," Valverde said after the stage. "I had to put my foot on the ground and stop completely."
"So I went from being in a really good position, eighth or ninth from the front to being at the back of a group, when there was only a kilometre or maybe less to go before the climb began.
"Having to work my way all the way through the group and with a climb that is so tough and with people going really fast from the bottom, was really hard to do. But I managed it."
Valverde said that rather than try to respond to attacks, after getting back into the main group, experience told him the best approach was to take a steady pace on the climb and see where that got him. In his case, that consistency was rewarded with third place.
"I knew that it was all going so fast that it was impossible for any of the first attacks to get to the top," Valverde reasoned later. "Instead I trusted myself, I knew the climb, I'd come to see it and I could make third.
"I was maybe missing 70 metres to be able to hold onto the two Slovenians when they got away, but they're riding amazingly well, and all I can do is congratulate them.
"For me, anything I'm doing is like a bonus. I'm about to turn 41 on the 25 April" - the day of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which he has won four times - "and I can't ask for more."
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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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