The reigning world champion is quick to downplay his overall hopes in his final grand tour in the rainbow jersey. Yet going into Sunday’s decisive five-climb stage across Andorra, Valverde was very much in contention to win this Vuelta.
“Don’t count him out,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “He continues to surprise us, and though the overall looks complicated, he may have one more in store for us.”
The timeless Valverde, who turns 40 in April, started Sunday’s stage fifth overall, just 16 seconds behind López and 10 seconds behind Roglic. Valverde’s teammate Nairo Quintana is just 11 seconds behind him. Eight days of hard racing have reduced the 2019 Vuelta into largely a four-horse race, and Valverde is poised to win the Vuelta for a second time a decade after he won his first.
“To win again? That would be incredible,” Valverde said after winning at Mas de la Costa on Friday. “It’s complicated and there is a lot of racing ahead of us. We have to stay calm.”
Valverde won his lone grand tour all the way back in 2009. Yet a decade on, a Valverde overall victory isn’t so far-fetched as it might sound.
On paper, Roglic is by far the favorite to win this Vuelta. Tuesday’s time trial favors him against the climbers, and many are expecting he can take two minutes or more on the rest of the GC field. Backed by a deep team and looking strong so far on the early climbs, Roglic would be in pole position to win the Spanish grand tour if he meets expectations in Pau.
But if Roglic struggles in the second half as he did during the Giro d’Italia in May — when he also won early time trials and looked hot out of the gates — the door could be open for Valverde. And of all the other GC favorites behind Roglic, Valverde is arguably the best against the clock, especially if he’s on a good day.
Up next, López would naturally be the second in line for victory if Roglic falls short. Backed by an equally strong Astana team, López needs to limit his losses in Pau to still have a fighting chance at the overall. So far, however, López hasn’t looked that much stronger than Valverde or Roglic on the climbs. López gapped the others at Javalambre, but Roglic and Valverde also bested him at Mas de la Costa.
The Vuelta’s second half is littered with a mix of terrain that favors López and Valverde alike. Los Machucos tilts more toward Valverde while La Cubilla is ideal terrain for López. Largely equal in the climbs, at least to now, it would come down to who has the better legs on the day.
A lot depends on how Roglic performs in Pau.
“There is an equality between the top four, with Roglic and Lopez and our Movistar riders, so now we have to see what Roglic can do next Tuesday in the time trial,” Unzué said. “For the time trial, we can expect Roglic can take at least one minute and a half. We’d like it to be a little less, but that’s how the numbers add up.”
And then there’s Quintana. Of the leading four, there are more doubts about the resolve and depth of the Colombian than the others. He took a morale-boosting victory in stage 2, but worked behind-the-scenes to try to shift the responsibility of leadership to Valverde. Unzué insists that both are racing as co-captains.
“Despite all the comments in the media, Nairo and Alejandro are our two leaders,” Unzué said. “Until it is shown otherwise, we will keep playing our two cards.”
Valverde also downplayed any strife within the Movistar bus.
“We’ve talked about all this on the bus, and there’s never been a problem between him or me, or for the team,” Valverde said. “When Nairo said, ‘hey, Alejandro, you can be the leader,’ I said, ‘Nairo, I can be there, but you are also the leader, you’re third, you have to stay there and fight.’
“There was a lot of controversy the other day when I was riding with Roglic [on stage 5 to Javalambre], I was never pulling, it was always Roglic, but I cannot let Lopez take back time, because he is a dangerous rival in the GC,” Valverde said. “Roglic is the most dangerous and he’s climbing well, and in the time trial, on paper he’s the best.”
And then there’s the final week. It almost reads like a Valverde playbook, filled with rolling terrain, punchy finales, and explosive climbs. Week three isn’t the most difficult the Vuelta has seen in recent history in what’s a front-loaded route, but if it favors anyone, it favors Valverde. He could find room to move, and then pick up time bonuses in reduced bunch sprints in the final battles across the Sierra de Gredos.
Though he will race in Yorkshire to defend his rainbow jersey, Valverde is realistic about his chances to win another rainbow jersey. Last year was the best chance of his career, and he bet everything on winning in Innsbruck. Last year, he was holding back just a bit in the Vuelta in order to be as strong as possible to win. This year, the Vuelta is the priority and he’s racing all-in.
First up comes Sunday’s short but explosive mountain stage across Andorra. It’s where Valverde cracked last year, and with a forecast calling for rain, that could spell danger for the warm-weather fan Valverde.
“Up first is Andorra, but I don’t believe that between the top favorites there will be so much differences,” Unzué said. “Of course, anything can happen because it is a unique stage. Right now they look very equal. Pau is the next big stage.”
Of course, it all depends if Valverde can stay in the mix. If anything, Valverde has shown consistency over three weeks, but as he revealed last year, his aging engine is starting to show signs of cracks in the depths of the third week.
In 26 grand tour starts, he’s finished in the top five, counting his 2009 Vuelta win, on 11 occasions. If anything, Valverde is always hovering near the top.
“It’s true that I continue to surprise even myself,” Valverde said. “I am nearly 40 years old, and I am still at the highest level. This says that I am going well, that the team supports me, and I’m healthy, that’s the most important thing.”
If Valverde rides into the third week still in contention, it could have a very different ending than his late-race fade from 2018. It’s been 10 years since he won the Vuelta. It might happen again. Like anyone knows in the peloton, never count out Valverde.