PEYRAGUDES, France (AFP) — Alejandro Valverde admitted he had to use his powers of persuasion as well as his head and legs as he capped a brave attack with victory on stage 17 of the Tour de France.
With hopes of a top finish this year dashed by several crashes in the first week, the Movistar rider turned his attention to winning a stage on his first Tour participation since a doping ban ended in January.
Stage 17 was the last mountain stage of the race, and with a summit finish it suited the two-time Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner to perfection.
But after fighting to get into an early breakaway, Valverde’s bid to keep the peloton at bay hit a major obstacle: the presence of Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale).
The Italian started the day third overall and, at only 2:23 behind race leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky), he was still a threat to the yellow jersey.
“It was very hard from the start. The race was on as soon as the flag dropped and so we had to fight hard to get in the breakaway,” Nibali recounted.
“On the descent of the first climb it was also very cloudy and raining a little bit, but the big problem was Nibali. Because he was there the peloton wouldn’t let us go. I ended up having to speak with him, and he finally agreed to go back to the bunch.”
From there Valverde played his hand to perfection.
With two other Movistar riders among the frontrunners, he sent teammate Rui Costa on the attack, a tactic that allowed him to sit on the wheels of the Portuguese rider’s pursuers.
Shortly afterwards Valverde made his own move, joining Costa and then dropping him 3.5km from the summit of the steep Port de Bales.
By the time he crested the summit Valverde led Costa and Euskaltel’s Egoi Martinez by more than 30 seconds, with the yellow jersey group more than two minutes behind.
With 32km still to race, including the 15.4km climb to the summit of Peyragudes, his victory was far from guaranteed.
Having started the final climb with a 2:35 lead over Wiggins and a select group of contenders, Valverde soon came under threat as Wiggins and Sky teammate Chris Froome upped the pace in the closing kilometers.
In the end, he dug deep to come over the finish line 19 seconds ahead of the British pair to take his first win on the race since 2008. It was his fourth career Tour stage victory.
“I was lucky because I had two teammates with me today — Ruben Plaza and Rui Costa — and they did a great job. This victory goes to them and all my other teammates, the ones that are still here and the ones at home,” said Valverde.
The crashes that marred the first week led to Imanol Erviti, Jose Ivan Gutierrez and Jose Joaquin Rojas quitting the race early.
But Valverde said his resolve remained intact.
“I crashed myself three times in the first week, and that put paid to my hopes for the general classification,” he added.
“But not once did I want to stop the race. We really wanted to get that stage win. It was hard to come by, but we finally got it.”