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The Vuelta begins its final critical stage on Tuesday, as Alejandro Valverde attempts to defend his narrow lead of 48 seconds over Astana's Andrei Kashechkin, with Carlos Sastre 1.25 down in third place and Kashechkin's compatriot and team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov just another 13 seconds back in fourth. All four will fancy their chances on stage 16 to the Calor Alto observatory in the southern province of Murcia, the first of three consecutive mountain stages that Spain's baking south, culminating with a summit finish at La Pandera in Andalucia.
The two Kazakhs look like ProTour leader Valverde's major threat as he edges towards a first-ever major tour title, and he certainly has bad memories of today's finish at Calor Alto, having fallen out of contention there in the 2004 race. "Calor Alto is the longer of the two summits and comes after two other very tough climbs. If you have a bad day this is a very dangerous stage. But as a climb I think the Pandera is tougher," Valverde says in this morning's AS.
Thinking back to his victory on the Pandera in 2003 and his bad day on the Calor Alto the following year, Valverde explains "they were different situations. I won on the Pandera, but I remember it as a very difficult climb. As for the Calor Alto, I rode up there having fallen two days before. Now I am in good condition."
Having extended his lead over all of his rivals except Vinokourov in Saturday's time trial won by David Millar, Valverde admits Saturday's final 28km time trial no longer carries the same concerns as it did a few days earlier, and says he expects to ride defensively before then rather than attacking. "We will try to control the race, but if a situation presents itself where you are going better than your rivals you have to take advantage of it.
"In that case I will attack, but I will be expecting attacks from the two Kazakhs over the next three stages. Vinokourov is very aggressive and could attack at any moment. But I will also have to keep an eye on Sastre, who is still at a very high level of form. It will be a battle against fatigue as well, as that is building as well. But I feel very well supported by my team, who seem very strong."
Valverde also admitted that bonus time won at stage finishes could end up making the difference between the leading contenders. "In this Vuelta you have to fight for second and third place at the finish, even if you've missed out on first. I have a bit of an advantage over my rivals in this because I'm the fastest sprinter, although Vinokourov is no slouch either," he says.
And could he replicate this kind of form at the Tour de France and challenge for victory there? "I've never been the leader of a major tour before. Now I've spent seven days in the lead here and mentally that provides me with a major boost looking towards my future Tour prospects," says the Spaniard, whose team-mate Oscar Pereiro could yet be crowned this year's Tour winner.
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