The margin between success and failure at the highest level is incredibly tight, as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) demonstrated on stage 3 of the Vuelta a España. The flying Spaniard had a couple of centimetres to spare over Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) at the end of an enthralling 155 kilometres of racing that brought to the peloton into the Basque Country and the first real climbs of the 2012 Vuelta.
On the final ascent of the Alto de Arrate, near Eibar, it was pre-race favourite Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) who seized the initiative, attacking no fewer than six times on the short but fearsomely steep climb. On each occasion, Selle Italia riders Valverde and Rodriguez were the first to respond, matching Contador pedal stroke for pedal stroke.
Contador’s fiercest acceleration arrived at the summit of the climb, with 2 kilometres to race, and it brought Valverde, Rodriguez and Chris Froome (Sky) clear to contest the victory.
It was here that Valverde demonstrated his tactical intelligence in full. As the road flattened out, he realised that Contador was no longer the true danger man. Instead, Valverde switched his attention to Rodriguez and he was perfectly positioned when ‘Purito’ jumped with 400 metres to go.
The pair swung around the final bend side by side and, somehow, Valverde summoned up the strength to edge in front of Rodriguez in the closing metres to win the sprint by the tightest of margins.
“It’s never easy to beat Joaquim Rodriguez but today I was that little sharper than him,” Valverde said. “Normally whoever comes through that last corner in first place wins, but today that wasn’t the case.”
Valverde was not surprised by Contador’s show of strength on the final climb and he paid tribute to his fellow countryman’s efforts. “I’m not surprised by the way Alberto attacked and attacked, he’s so strong,” Valverde said. “But I hung on and hung on and finally I could get the win.”
As well as taking stage victory, Valverde now moves into the red jersey of overall leader, which he inherits from Jonathan Castroviejo, his teammate. Castroviejo showed his commitment to the Movistar team by selflessly working for Valverde on the approach to the final climb.
“The team has killed themselves to control the race today, we didn’t get any help at all,” said Valverde. Overall winner on his last appearance in the Vuelta in 2009, Valverde was reluctant to talk up his chances this time, but he is delighted with how his race has begun. “We’ve held the lead for three days and won two stages,” he smiled. “Anything we get from now on is a bonus.”