Thursday's stage to Calar Alto left the Vuelta looking like a straight fight between a trio of SpaniPICTURE BY LAVUELTA.COM After Thursday's Vuelta stage to the Calar Alto observatory all three of the riders in the podium positions expressed their happiness with how the day had gone for them. Today's flat run to Malaga and Saturday's tougher but none too testing stage to Granada should allow new race leader Roberto Heras, second-placed Paco Mancebo and third-placed Alejandro Valverde to regather their forces before Sunday's crucial mountain time trial on the Sierra Nevada. Heras said his aim at Calar Alto had simply been to gain as much time as possible on his rivals. The stage win and race leadership were bonuses he had not planned on. "It was the culmination of the team's work, once again they all worked extremely hard," he said. But he admitted being surprised when the apparently ailing Valverde attacked with nine kilometres left. "I was not expecting him to attack given his condition after his fall," said Heras. "His acceleration resulted in Marcos Serrano being dropped, and he had been setting the pace for me, and so Nozal had to take responsibility for setting the rhythm on the climb. Valverde defended himself very well and it's clear we can't relax. He is very aggressive." Heras also stated that Mancebo remained a significant threat because of his consistency and strength, but said he was looking forward to Sunday's time trial. He also pointed out that most of the tough mountain stages are still to come, including a summit finish on the Covatilla above his home town of Bejar. Having considered abandoning the race just three days ago, Valverde was pleased to still be right in contention. "I felt better than expected," he said after finishing fourth on the stage and dropping just one place overall. "I'm surprised at how I recovered, and happy. I attacked just to test exactly how good my legs were." Valverde said two-time Vuelta winner Heras is now the favourite for a third title, but denied the race was lost. "It's still not over, there are still a lot of very important stages ahead of us, although I know it will be difficult to win. I can't deny that I really suffered near the end of the stage though. Near the end my whole body was hurting, although that did mean I forgot about my dodgy knee." The dogged Mancebo said he could not follow the explosive Heras, but was adamant he would still have an impact. "There are a lot of mountain stages to come and I'm a climber, but Heras is the best climber in the world," said the Illes Balears team leader. Riding with a wrist broken just before the Vuelta, Mancebo added: "My strength is my consistency and this is the hardest Vuelta that I have ever ridden in. If I win it will be by a process of elimination." Mancebo picked out Heras's team-mate Nozal as the strongest rider in the race, but agreed with Valverde about Heras now being the favourite.