EIBAR, Spain (AFP) –
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde narrowly won the mountainous third stage of the Tour of Spain and took the overall leader’s red jersey in a tough battle in the Basque country on Monday.
Movistar’s Valverde, 32, crossed the finishing line in Eibar just centimetres ahead of fellow Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) after a 155-kilometre ride from the vineyards of Faustino V in Oyon.
In the race’s first real work-out for the climbers, Briton Christopher Froome, runner-up in the Tour de France, took third place just ahead of Spaniard Alberto Contador, back from a hotly contested doping ban.
Saxobank’s Contador, racing before his home crowd, needs a victory to turn the page on a two-year back-dated doping ban imposed on February 6 after he tested positive for traces of the banned substance clenbuterol.
Contador has not swayed from his defence that his positive test was caused by a contaminated steak he ate on the eve of the test.
But the 29-year-old two-time Tour de France winner, who was stripped of the third win in 2010, along with his Tour of Italy title of 2011, faces severe competition here, not only from Froome but also from Dutchman Bauke Mollema, with Rabobank, and the new leader, Valverde.
Valverde praised runner-up ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, saying he could easily have won the stage.
“Purito deserved to win as much as I did,” he said. “He gave me a bit of a scare but at the end he got a bit confident and I passed him.”
The third stage, which presented riders with four ascents including a category 1 climb to Arrate just ahead of the finish, began with a breakway group that quickly grew to eight riders.
The early leaders, including Belgian Philippe Gilbert (BMC), managed to put more than four minutes between themselves and the peloton at one point, with the temperature hitting 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) in the mid-afternoon.
But their lead was whittled down to just seconds some 10 km from the finish, and then the fight began in earnest with the four top finishers battling it out for the lead and crossing the line in the same second after three hours, 49 minutes and 37 seconds.
Contador made repeated attacks on the lead in the final kilometres but failed to squeeze out Valverde, who snatched the red jersey from compatriot and Movistar team-mate Jonathan Castroviejo.
Valverde said he and Castroviejo were satisfied with their performance so far.
“We are happy. We have kept the leadership — the person has changed but we have kept it in the team,” he said, before warning that there was a long way to go.
“Anything can happen on the first day in the mountains,” he said.
“These days of heat can take it out of you. Arriving in Madrid with the red jersey is very difficult becasue your rivals are very strong.”
Dutchman Pim Ligthart of Team Vacansoleil-DCM won the ‘King of the Mountains’ polka dot jersey as best climber of the stage.
On Tuesday, the Vuelta’s riders face a spectacular 160km fourth stage from Barakaldo in the Basque Country to Valdezcaray in Rijoa, near a popular ski resort.