By Andrew Hood
It was early March and the questions were already beginning: When was Alejandro Valverde going to win his first race of the season?
The Spanish sensation usually roars out of the gate, as he did two years ago when he won a stage just hours after getting off a plane at the Mallorca Challenge in February.
This year, Valverde is taking aim at bigger fish, but the 25-year-old couldn’t help himself when he smelled the finish line in the bumpy 172.4km second stage of the Vuelta a Murcia.
Following the wheel of compatriot Santos González (3 Molinas) over the Cat. 1 climb some 16km from the finish line in Alhama de Murcia, Valverde came to life just in time to quiet the doubters.
Valverde had Illes Balears teammate José Iván Gutiérrez to help reel in a string of attackers out of the final group of nine who charged in to fight for the spoils.
With the tape within eyeshot, Valverde made easy work of Angel Vicioso (Liberty Seguros) and Giuliano Figueras (Lampre) to sprint to his first victory of the 2006 season. Despite the win, it was Vicioso who grabbed the overall leader’s jersey based on placements in the opening two stages.
A number of threats for the overall saw their chances diminished in today’s stage. Finishing 1:04 back in a group of 15 were threats Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Discovery Channel) and Juan Carlos Dominguez (Unibet.com).
The day’s main obstacles also proved too much too soon for bigger names such as Alexandre Vinokourov (Liberty Seguros) and Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) , both of whom finished in a group more than 10 minutes adrift.
Overnight leader Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner), who won the opening-day sprint, came through 26th at 3:02 back, while Iban Mayo (Euskaltel), making his season debut, led a group across the line 44th at 6:22 back.
Valverde might find his toughest competition coming from his own team.
With Friday’s 21.6km individual time trial on tap, Gutiérrez – second in last year’s world time trial championships – could grab the lead. González and Jan Hruska (3 Molinas) aren’t bad against the clock, either.
Valverde probably wouldn’t be too upset if he couldn’t win his hometown race for a second time in three years. His main goal is the Tour de France, still four months away.
Thursday’s win was nothing more than a tapa ahead of what he hopes is the main feast in France — and a chance to quiet the second-guessers.