Alejandro Valverde of Movistar has won Stage 6 of the Vuelta a Espana as the big contenders for the overall title joined battle on the first big summit finish of this year’s race at La Zubia, with Team Sky’s Chris Froome second and Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo third.
Valverde’s victory puts him back in the race lead and came after a stage on which it appeared that he was working for team mate Nairo Quintana, with the Spaniard setting a blistering pace on the final climb to match the sizzling temperatures.
His efforts saw a number of big names shelled out of the leading group, including Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin and by the time the leaders passed under the flamme rouge to signify the start of the last of the 167 kilometres of the stage from Benaldamena, there were just ten men left in contention for the stage win.
Katusha’s Joaquin Rordriguez attacked with a little over 600 metres remaining but was tracked by Valverde, with Froome, Contador and Quintana also getting across. It was Valverde who made the decisive push for the line, with Rodriguez finishing fourth, 8 seconds behind the front trio, and Quintana a further 4 seconds back in fifth place.
Following the stage, Valverde - winner of the Vuelta in 2010 - insisted that his team's efforts for the overall would remain focused around Quintana, who triumphed in May's Giro d'Italia, despite the Colombian being distanced today.
He said: "Our tactic consisted in riding strongly to control our adversaries. I’m working for Nairo Quintana. I don’t know if he had the legs to attack but when Purito [Rodriguez] did it, I followed Froome and Contador and I eventually won.
"The goal remains the same. Nairo is our team leader but I don’t give away my chances to stay high on GC. Riding as I did today, I was helping Nairo because our rivals were going to suffer and some of them would get dropped. In my wheel, Nairo was encouraging me to keep that rhythm."
Speaking of Froome and Contador, he said: "The two of them came to the Vuelta with the desire to take their revenge. Alberto Contador never comes to the Vuelta as a fun rider. He’s had a big crash at the Tour. He’s not back at 100% yet but at about 90%. As everyone, I knew he was going well and today, it’s obvious. We know him well. We always have to be careful of him."
Froome said: “Movistar is the team to beat! I’ve seen Rodriguez riding very well too and Alberto Contador, for someone who is coming back after an injury, he’s impressive. I expected Quintana to do a little bit better but I’m sure he’ll be back in bigger climbs. I’m happy because I didn’t lose any more time, thanks to my team. They’ve been fantastic in positioning me where I wanted to be at the bottom of the climb.”
Contador, who has said he is only targeting stages in the race rather than the overall, added: “To finish third in the same time as Froome and Valverde is almost a victory for me. Had I just made the top 10, I’d have been happy.
"My knee still hurts sometimes but fingers crossed, I hope it’ll last like this. I haven’t prepared for the Vuelta as I should have done, I’m still below my level, I don’t have the same weight as at the Tour de France but I’m getting better and better every day.
"It’s been hard for me to watch the Tour from home. Honestly, if there’s a possibility to attack some day, I’ll do it.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.