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Bullet-Proof Valverde

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[editor's note, by chris] This post never happened. Got it?

Anything can (and often does) happen in a bike race, and out of superstition or economy I'll spare you the litany of reasons Alejandro Valverde might not win the Vuelta. But the one reason that I don't see anywhere is "he's not as strong as (name your rider)." In his own somewhat more terrestrial fashion, Valverde is dominating the Vuelta the way Ivan Basso held serve in his national race in May.

Here is how Valverde and his main challengers have fared in the stages that have affected the GC:

Valverde was competent but conservative in stage 5, won by Danilo DiLuca, with AV 22 seconds down, marking Carlos Sastre. Two days later, the next time the road turned up, he rocketed past Vinokourov for the stage win; then 12th in a sprinters' stage; then second and into Gold on the queen stage, where he let Vino get away at the bottom of the final climb and couldn't quite reel him in (if that was actually his objective).

After three days of purgatory, he nabbed third in another sprint, then fourth in the time trial just seconds off Vinokourov's pace. Finally, in today's ride kicking off three days of decisive climbs, he nabbed second on the stage, which is the equivalent of first among the GC riders.

If you're scoring at home, that means among the contenders he has finished in arrears of Vino twice, but by scant amounts, but ahead of him on four other occasions that mattered. He has yet to finish behind Sastre and lose time even once. He lost 15 seconds (and bonuses) to Kashechkin in stage 5 but from then on has beaten him. And the next-placed rider, Gomez Marchante, is too far back (4+ minutes) to warrant consideration.

Can anything be done to stop him? Well, there's still a time trial left, and no doubt Vino is a better pick in a flat time trial. But the previous one had only one climb of note and Valverde basically hung with Vino, while the final ITT in Madrid is bumpy and a mere 28km -- giving Vinokourov little opportunity to make up more than, say, 30 seconds.

So it comes down to someone, presumably Vino or Sastre, managing to turn the tables on Valverde in the next two days. Actually, make that Thursday; Wednesday's stage finishes with 20km of downhill and flats, so separations at the top levels are pretty unlikely. So Thursday then. Sure, Sastre or Vino could do it, but there is nothing in the fluid, effortless riding Valverde has exhibited every day that suggests he's at risk of cracking. Neither remaining mountain stage is long (167 and 153 kms), so exhaustion isn't a likely scenario. Which leaves one opening: someone has to dash away from Valverde, decisively, on the final climb of Sierra de la Pandera. That and unforeseen calamity is really all that stands between Valverde and overall victory. And given Valverde's performance up to now, that Sierra is no hurdle at all.