No doubt about it – Alejandro Valverde is back and up for victory in the 2006 Tour of Spain.
Following his disastrous Tour de France, where Valverde crashed out because of a broken collarbone, the Caisse D?Epargne-Illes Balears leader was always going to be a man on a mission in the Tour of Spain.
And so it proved on stage seven from Leon to the Alto De El Morredero summit finish, where Valverde turned up the heat in the final kilometre for the fourth Vuelta stage win of his career.
Charging past Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) almost within sight of the line, Valverde?s sudden acceleration left the peloton of a dozen strong race favourites reeling in his wake.
Second was CSC?s Carlos Sastre, four seconds back, with Saunier Duval-Prodir?s Jose Gomez Marchante six seconds adrift.
But the biggest future obstacle for Valverde, to judge from Friday?s stage, may well be neither of the Spaniards – instead it could be Discovery Channel?s Slovenian Janez Brajkovic who causes him the most headaches in the next two weeks.
22-years-old, the 2004 Under-23 Trial World Champion is only in his first full season as a pro – but has already racked up top five places in races as prestigious as the Tour of Switzerland and Tour of Catalonia.
Three months further on, Brajkovic now leads the Tour of Spain by five seconds over Valverde, having stuck to the Spaniard?s back wheel like a limpet for most of the climb and then trying to get away close to the summit.
It didn?t work out, but his bold attack showed that when the Slovenian said afterwards that ?the only thing I?m afraid of right now is bad weather? he clearly wasn?t kidding.
?He?s very strong.? Valverde stated bluntly. ?Today I did well, but the differences were minimal.?
?I scored a good psychological victory, but there?s a lot of work left for me to do.?
?Even if Janez loses the lead tomorrow, we?ll be more than satisfied with him.? Discovery Channel directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel said afterwards.
The chances of that, though, are minimal: stage eight is a flat run between Ponferrada and Lugo made for the sprinters, the first time the race has visited the remote northwestern region of Galicia in 12 years.