Spaniard Alejandro Valverde confessed that he never expected to take second place in the Vuelta a España at the age of 39, but on Sunday the reigning world champion will once again step up onto the podium in Madrid alongside Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).
"I hoped to get a stage win" - which he duly did, in the first week at Mas de la Costa - "but I thought second was impossible," the Movistar man admitted.
Although establishing leadership status in Movistar's GC hierarchy is a task which would baffle even the best of Kremlinologists, Valverde was reportedly due to have been a support rider for Richard Carapaz in his 14th Vuelta.
But, after the Giro d'Italia winner pulled out due to an injury in the week leading up to the race, both Valverde and Nairo Quintana found themselves in leaders' roles.
Valverde recognised that his second place on GC had been in danger during Pogacar's late attack on stage 20 to Plataforma de Gredos, with the UAE Team Emirates rider finally ousting Quintana from third place overall but failing to dislodge the Spaniard.
"I didn't have any time references when he attacked, I changed the setting on my radio by mistake and ended up asking Ion Izagirre (Astana Pro Team) what the gaps were," Valverde said.
"Fortunately some roadside fans started shouting at me that he [Pogacar] had a two-minute gap and I'd need to put my foot down, so I did that all the way to the top on the final climb."
Second on the stage, Valverde saved his second place on GC by 22 seconds on Pogacar, having crossed the line 1:32 back.
Although disappointed for Quintana's loss of the third place overall, Valverde said the overall balance of the race had been positive for Movistar, with a second place overall, the team classification prize, and two stage wins. He also thanked his team for their hard work, singling out Quintana and Marc Soler for praise.
Now riding his 26th Grand Tour, Valverde's second place is his first podium finish in the Vuelta since 2014, when he finished a distant third behind Chris Froome and winner Alberto Contador.
He has taken six podium finishes at the Spanish Grand Tour, including an overall victory in 2009, as well as finishing third in the Tour de France in 2015 and in the Giro d'Italia in 2016.
But his real strength has always been in the Vuelta, with his first podium finish coming in 2003 in his second year as a pro. This is his first runner's up spot in a Grand Tour since the Vuelta 2012 when, like Alberto Contador, he also succeeded in outpowering former leader Joaquim Rodriguez in the third week of the race, but his achievement was eclipsed by Contador's dramatic ride to victory at Fuente De.
With both Rodriguez and Contador enjoying retirement, Valverde is now the last of Spain's 'golden era' of cycling to remain operative, and on Saturday afternoon, the veteran could soak up a fresh round of applause, so much so that he said "It feels like I've won the Vuelta."
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