Valverde: 'next three Vuelta stages critical'

Spaniard leads Evans by 7 seconds

The outcome of the 2009 Tour of Spain will be decided in the next three grueling mountain stages of the race, Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde, the holder of the leader's golden jersey, said Wednesday.

"The next two stages in Velefique and the Sierra Nevada are very hard and if it is hot they will be very draining and the following one at La Pandera could be the finish," he told reporters in Almeria on the second and last rest day of the race.

During these three stages "the Tour will be won, then the goal will be to try to maintain the lead during the final week of the race," he added.

The first major test of the three-week race will come when the bikes hit the road again on Friday for the twelfth stage, a 172.4-kilometre (106.8-mile) ride that starts in Almeria and finishes on Alto de Velefique at over 1,800 metres.

It will be followed by a 2,380-metre climb of the Sierra Nevada during stage 13 and a 1,840-metre climb to Alto Sierra de la Pandera during stage 14.

Valverde, riding for Caisse D'Epargne, held on to the golden jersey after Wednesday's 11th stage with a seven-second lead over Australia's Cadel Evans.

Dutchman Robert Gesink is third, 36 seconds behind the leader.

Valverde named Evans and Italy's Ivan Basso, fifth place overall at 53 seconds, as his main rivals to win the 64th edition of the Tour of Spain, the third Grand Tour of the year after the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia.

The 29-year-old is looking to win his first major tour after twice finishing on the podium in the Tour of Spain. He is still serving a two-year ban for doping in Italy which prevented him from taking part in the Tour de France this year as it briefly passed through the country. Valverde has denied any wrongdoing.

Basso, the winner of the 2006 Giro d'Italia, said he was confident he could take the lead from Valverde over the next three stages.

"The delay of 53 seconds with respect to Valverde is not insurmountable, just as the difference seperating me from Evans and Gesink," the 31-year-old said. "The upcoming three stages over the weekend are hellish and provide the opportunity to tighten the race, just as I like it. Those who resist more will make the difference," he added.

The first three stages of the the Tour of Spain were held in the Netherlands, known for its flat roads and fields of flowers, while the fourth stage began in the country and ended in the Belgian city of Liege.

It was only the second time that the Tour has started outside Spain. It kicked off from Portugal in 1967.

© 2009 AFP

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