The Vuelta a España teams say that the 2018 race will come down to a fight for seconds in Andorra, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) pushing race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) to the last summit.
Yates leads by a slim 25 seconds with two mountain days in Andorra to come ahead of the final flat sprint stage in Madrid. He has yet to win a grand tour while the Spaniard has years of experience and the 2009 Vuelta title already in his palmarès.
"The stage Saturday can change everything," EF Education sports director Juan Manuel Gárate told Cycling Weekly.
"Simon Yates a strong and the team are riding stronger in the last two days but I expect a big war from kilometre one of the stage Saturday to try to isolate him and his team. I expect everything."
The short 97.3-kilometre stage covers six climbs, with the final Gallina summit finish.
"[Valverde's team-mate] Nairo Quintana could attack before kilometre five and force a chase early. Maybe our team will try to get in that game and try something as well," Gárate said. "Everything could change or maybe it'll be nothing. I expect a big fight all day long that day."
Yates came close to winning the Giro d'Italia in May. The Englishman from Bury led for 13 days, won three stages, but could not keep the pink jersey to Rome. He faltered on stage 19 and Chris Froome rode home with the spiral trophy.
"As a fan of cycling and maybe because I also rode with Valverde, I really hope he can take the overall," explained Nicolas Portal, Team Sky sports director. "I would also like to see Simon win it because he deserves it and he had a fantastic year. His team is really growing up around him but I would go with Valverde."
Sky gambled everything on a long-range attack with Froome in the Giro. Portal senses Movistar wanting to play a similar game.
"Knowing Alejandro and Movistar, they really don't care about finishing third or second," added Portal. "The team will try to work and go for the stage victory and try to drop Simon to get the time bonuses. I think it's possible."
"I believe 55 per cent Valverde and 45 per cent Simon Yates," explained Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena. "I put my money on Valverde at this point. Alejandro is fast and can control it until the last kilometre and go for the time bonus, so he has more chances if you just analyse it that way.
"I think Yates is in great shape. I don't think he's made the mistake that he did in the Giro. He has great legs for sure to keep going like this. I give that different percentage points to Valverde because Simon needs to try from further out.
"Valverde is the biggest champion the last 20 years with the qualities that you need for cycling and he's not someone he's going to give up. And He's relaxed and cool."
Friday's stage starts where Thursday ended, in Llieda. It travels the Spanish plains before a summit finish in Andorra at Rabassa. Saturday is lumpy but squeezed into the short and final mountain stage.
"Simon Yates, I think [will win]," Sunweb sports director Aike Visbeek added. "The team seem to have planned it out right in this Vuelta. And I also see that his brother Adam is riding better and better. I think he's fine."
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