Movistar’s GC bid in the Vuelta a España stepped up notably in pace on Thursday's stage 6 as the Spanish team’s triumivrate of leaders all delivered near-faultless performances on the race’s second summit finish at Cullera.
Already on the attack on the Picón Blanco summit finish on Monday and the only rider to gain time there on arch-favourite Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Enric Mas was Movistar first rider home again at Cullera, placing fifth at four seconds.
Teammate and former Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde had ruled himself out of GC this year and crashed early on stage 5. But he nonetheless followed up his own above-expectations performance at Picón Blanco, where he spearheaded the leading group in the final kilometre, and took an eighth place at Cullera at eight seconds.
Rounding off a near perfect day for Movistar, Colombian teammate Miguel Angel Lopez finished ninth. As a result, the three Movistar racers have moved up to second overall for Mas, 25 seconds behind Roglič, with third for López and fourth for Valverde.
For Movistar, after last year where Mas claimed fifth and the Best Young Rider’s jersey and Valverde was 10th without any major effects on the overall battle, this August the blue team seem to have notably stepped up their game.
Mas warned that the hardest climbing stages were yet to come, starting as soon as Friday in the Balcón de Alicante. But he recognised that Cullera had been a solid performance overall and also referred to Movistar’s presence en masse at the front of the peloton in the dangerous closing circuit on narrow, exposed back lanes round the coastal resort.
“Everybody knows the kind of riders we have here, a lot of high-quality performers, and today we showed that,” Mas said. “Up until now we hadn’t taken control of the race because we knew what was coming up from today onwards was important, and even more so from tomorrow onwards.
“The Balcón de Alicante [on Friday] and Velefique [on Sunday] summit finishes are very hard stages, and we’re going to have a lot at stake there.”
Already looking at the race long term, Mas recognised that Roglič’s exceptional time trialling capacity in a year where the final stage is a chrono made it necessary to go on the attack in the mountains.
“We know we’ve got to grab what options we can because we know that Roglič is a very strong rider and with the time trial that’s coming up in Santiago, he’s got a trump card up his sleeve.”
Valverde said that his crash early on in the stage had influenced Movistar’s racing strategy, because they wanted to keep their foot off the accelerator until they could see what condition he was really in.
The Spanish veteran said he had hurt his neck badly in the crash, “to the point that it made a crunching sound”, but that fortunately it had not ended up being so serious as he initially feared.
“Somebody braked really hard ahead, and I could brake in time, but just when I’d come to a standstill, somebody ran into me from behind and I got caught up with a Trek-Segafredo rider’s bike. It hurt a lot but fortunately finally it wasn’t anything major,” Valverde said.
While satisfied with how he performed and praising the team for their collective performance, Valverde said that his own position so high up on GC was ideal as it widened Movistar’s options in the stages to come.
But he echoed Mas’ words by saying that if Thursday’s stage 6 had been difficult, Friday’s trek through the mountains of Alicante would be in another league of toughness altogether.
As Valverde put it, “today was tough with the wind, but tomorrow is a totally different ballgame.”
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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