For the first time in this year?s Tour of Spain, on stage 13 from Guadalajar to Cuenca, race leader Alejandro Valverde reminded his fans that he?s not only an extra-ordinary climber and solid all-rounder, he?s also one of the bunch?s best sprinters, too.
The Caisse D?Epargne-Illes Balears pro. placed third in a bunch sprint of 29 riders that came within a whisker of catching stage winner Samuel Sanchez of the Euskaltel-Eusakadi team. Second and leading the pursuit of the 28-year-old Sanchez was Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) – the winner of the same stage to Cuenca in 2005.
With all the favourites in the front group that formed shortly after Valverde had attacked in person the final third category climb of the day – a steep, partly cobbled climb climb through the streets of Cuenca – the Vuelta leader could hardly say third place and eight seconds was a vital gain time-wise.
But on the eve of the only really crucial stage of the second week, a 33 kilometre time trial starting and finishing in Cuenca on Saturday, Valverde?s goal on stage 13 was perhaps more psychological – to emphasise his strength over his rivals.
?I was pleased to take third and every little counts, but really I?m already thinking about the time trial.? Valverde commented afterwards.
?Today was an insanely fast stage, but it was good too, the sort of spectacular finish that people enjoy.?
Overall Valverde now leads by 35 seconds on Kazakh Andrei Kashechkin (Astana) with CSC?s Carlos Sastre in third, 52 seconds back.
?If I?m still leading this time tomorrow, I?ll be happy.? Valverde recognised. ?At least it?s not too long a time trial.?
?I want the lead tomorrow.? Kashechkin stated bluntly after the stage, whilst his team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov, fifth overall added,
?I would prefer the time trial to have been 45 kilometres or even longer, then I could really do some damage. Even so, I reckon I?ll put back a minute on Alejandro.?
Hero of the day was Sanchez, who eased some of the considerable pressure on his Euskaltel-Euskadi team, which has underperformed in the first part of the race, after he made a fine attack eight kilometres from the finish. Sanchez went clear on a left-hand bend on a rainsoaked descent into Cuenca, taking what looked like considerable risks to stay away.
?You descended so fast you were either going to end up on the podium or in an ambulance.? one journalist joked to Sanchez, but he disagreed.
?In fact the descent wasn?t half as dangerous as it looked, the worst part was in the streets just before the finish.? Sanchez said, ?That was where I was most worried I was going to lose control of my bike.?
On the final section of the run-in the bunch had Sanchez in his sights, and he almost blew it by celebrating his win a little too wildly before the line: finally, though he finished a few yards ahead of Hushovd, Valverde and the rest.
All in all it was a good day for the orange-clad Euskaltel-Euskadi team. Sanchez team-mate Inigo Landaluze, part of a five-man break early on, snapped up a prize in memory of the late Luis Ocaña, winner of the 1973 Tour de France, by being the fastest in a hot spot sprint in Priego, Ocaña?s home town some 70 kilometres north-west of Cuenca.
Tomorrow?s 33 kilometre time trial starts and finishes in Cuenca, and includes the same third category climb where Valverde attacked and the same lethal descent where Sanchez went clear.