Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won stage four of the Vuelta a Espana, proving his credentials on the uphill Vejer de Lafrontera finish which was perfectly suited to his strengths.
Having proved himself a master of the Mur de Huy finale at La Fleche Wallonne, Valverde came to the fore just shy of the final bend to beat Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) to victory.
Nicolas Roche (Team Sky) had led the way onto the final part of the changeable gradients of the climb, but Valverde proved too fast.
Race leader Johan Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) lost time on the stage, but held onto his red jersey as he finished in the day’s second group.
After a fast start, six riders immediately pressed forward and stole a march on the peloton – Mickael Delage (FDJ), Bert Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Nikolaes Maes (Etixx-QuickStep), Jimmy Engoulvent (Europcar), Kristijan Durasek (Lampre-Merida) and Markel Irizar (Trek Factory Racing) bedding in for a day in the break.
The advantage quickly stretched to more than 13 minutes, making Irizar virtual leader on the road, before Orica-GreenEDGE took on pace-setting duties for race leader Chaves.
Tinkoff-Saxo took charge as the gap came down, however, with stage three winner Sagan clearly fancying his chances at the denouement.
A fast pace made for a nervous bunch, not helped by the amount of road furniture and narrow roads to negotiate.
Several riders over shot a corner at one roundabout, with 32km remaining, which in turn led to a large group of riders becoming held up on the narrow roads.
Van Garderen was one of the riders who had to be led back to the front, while compatriot Andrew Talansky also found himself with a chase back further on, the Cannondale-Garmin man having been held up by a mechanical.
Engoulvent and Irizar pressed on with 20km remaining, but their gap – with Tinkoff-Saxo setting a consistently high speed in the bunch – dropped by the pedal stroke.
The race was all together as they passed under the 8km-to-go banner and Tinkoff-Saxo continued to set a fast pace but were not short of company at the front as the speed-o-meter registered close to 70km/h.
The sharp, right-hand bend onto the final climb saw the road kick up immediately though, and several riders suddenly ground to a halt on the steep slopes.
Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal) hit the climb with a lot of pace, but the peloton soon closed him down as the hurt kicked in.
Pello Bilbao (Caja Rural-Seguros) was next to strike out alone, but Katusha controlled the bunch with Joaquim Rodriguez in front of rivals Valverde and Sagan at the front.
Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing) read the road lay-out perfectly, however, and shot off the nose as the gradient eased with Roche alert to the move and Bilbao swept up by the bunch.
Roche passed Sanchez as they approached the final bend on the climb, but Valverde was too fast behind – bridging across with Sagan on his wheel.
Valverde had the road position and used that to his advantage to earn his ninth career stage win at his home Grand Tour.
Vuelta a Espana 2015: stage four – result
1) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – 5.07.30hrs
2) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Tinkoff-Saxo – ST
3) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha
4) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – Team Sky
5) Jose Goncalves (POR) – Caja Rural-Seguros
6) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha
7) Julien Simon (FRA) – Cofidis +3”
8) Rafal Majka (POL) –Tinkoff-Saxo
9) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar
10) Johan Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE
1) Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE – 13.11.34hrs
2) Tom Dumoulin (NED) – Giant-Alpecin +5”
3) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – Team Sky +12”
4) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +25”
5) Daniel Martin (IRL) – Cannondale-Garmin +27”
6) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +32”
7) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha +33”
8) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +36”
9) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +40”
10) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +50”