Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) started stage 18 of the Vuelta a España in second place overall, three seconds ahead of Chris Froome (Team Sky) but ended the day in third place, shipping 13 seconds to the Briton. Valverde lead home Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) to win the sprint for the third place and pick up previous time bonifications and hasn't given up on reclaiming his second place.
When Fabio Aru (Astana) attacked on the day's final climb to Monte Castrove en Meis, Froome was the only rider to go with the Italian and took up the pace setting duties as he looked to unsettle Valverde from second spot which he succeeded in doing so.
Valverde, Contador and Rodríguez all rode together behind the two leaders with little cooperation between the three riders. Seeing his second place slipping away, Valverde took it upon himself to peg back Froome as he explained.
"When Froome attacked, there wasn't much cooperation behind: I pushed into the group from the beginning to not let the two go, but I always had to keep an eye on my side so Purito didn't attack, which was the thing he did all the time," he said. "Though we tried and we were closed in the final section, we couldn't catch them. Still, we must keep fighting because we're still in the mix."
Froome is only now beginning to reach a similar level of form which saw him claim three stages and the overall classification at the Tour de France last year but Valverde suggested that there isn't much between the top four riders at the moment.
"I don't really think Froome is doing better than us; he's physically level with us three, but he was simply smarter today and took advantage that we three were controlling each other," he said. "We already imagined Froome was going to contest the intermediate sprint and we sent team-mates ahead, but despite that, he managed to take second."
With Rodríguez almost a full minute behind Valverde, the Movistar rider is unlikely to lose his podium spot as he did at the Tour in July, but Valverde is cautious of stage 19 which features a category two climb, Alto do Morrazo, 19km from the finish line which could see an ambush by one of the GC riders looking to move up the standings.
However the eighth and final summit finish of the race on Saturday, the 12km Ancares, will be a final chance for the GC riders to extract time from their rivals before the conclusion of the Vuelta with a short 9.7km time trial in Santiago de Compostela.
"We will have to keep full focus tomorrow and give everything we've got left on Saturday before the final TT," Valverde said.