BOURG-EN-BRESSE, France (VN) — Alejandro Valverde sat on the steps of the Movistar bus, taking a few questions from journalists before the start of Thursday’s stage.
The 34-year-old Spaniard has not garnered much attention so far, but that is poised to change as the Tour de France pedals into the first major mountain climbs of this year’s race.
Valverde, who has never finished on the Tour podium, knows that he has his best, perhaps last chance, to earn a place of honor in Paris.
“There are still five or six riders who are close to the podium. We’re third, we’re well placed,” Valverde said. “We have to think about more. Third is good, but if we can gain more, even better.”
With pre-race favorites Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) both out of the race, Valverde has the chance of a lifetime to reach the Tour podium.
Yet there is more. Although race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) looks rock solid, Valverde is one of the few riders in the peloton who has won a grand tour. Backed by a powerful and experienced Movistar team, Valverde is one of the few riders who could take the race the Italian.
When asked if he was thinking podium or yellow jersey, Valverde replied, “fifty-fifty.”
“I am on the ‘podium,’ and I don’t want to lose it, but I am thinking about more,” Valverde continued. “We’re heading into the truly hard part of the race. Nibali is strong, but we have good legs, and the team is every day stronger. We’ll see.”
Valverde made it through the first half of the race relatively unscathed, a major accomplishment for the fragile Spaniard who inevitably seems to succumb to disaster.
He dodged a bullet in stage 5, crashing before the cobblestones, and then riding the final 60km on the bike of teammate JJ Rojas, some three centimeters too small, but with the race exploding, there was no time to swap bikes.
Third behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), at 2:47 back, Valverde is close, perhaps not as close as Movistar wanted to be, but still close enough to inspire dreams of the yellow jersey.
“The high mountains start tomorrow. It’s been a hard start, with a lot of force expended, tension, rain, cold, and now it’s hot, it’s been a truly hard Tour,” Valverde said. “The Alps are very important. They’ll be very hard, with the hard rhythm we’ve had every day, with this heat we’re having, it will cost everyone.”
The hotter, the better. Valverde, who hails from Murcia, thrives in the heat.
Astana has been on cruise control so far through this Tour, but insiders at the team say that they fear Valverde and Movistar the most going into the second half of the Tour.
“I am not sure I am the most dangerous rival. Richie [Porte] is going well, there are others who are close,” he said. “I am feeling good, with motivation, with illusion, and every day I am closing in on the Tour.”
Valverde has come into this Tour on a slow simmer. Unlike many of his rivals, who have posted big results throughout the season, Valverde skipped the Critérium du Dauphiné, with the idea of hitting his peak form in the final half of the Tour.
Many are wondering just where Valverde is. So far, he’s been impressive in the fact that he hasn’t shown much. Sport director José Luis Arrieta said that was part of the plan.
“He started easier, with the idea to arrive at the Tour a little off his top form. He didn’t race Dauphiné, and we came here with the idea of hitting peak form in the third week of the Tour it will play in favor of Alejandro,” Arrieta told VeloNews.
“The objective has always been the podium. Now we are there, but realizing that Froome and Contador are not here, those are two places, now we have to see, and one day we will have an option to aspire for more,” Arrieta continued. “Alejandro likes to race, always aiming for the top.”
The two stages across the Alps will reveal who’s real. The HC summit at Chamrousse will quickly put everyone in their place. The Alps will eliminate any pretenders, and they will confirm if Nibali can handle himself in the long climbs, where he’s so far been untested.
For Valverde, who served a two-year ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal, and who has teammate Nairo Quintana breathing down his neck, this Tour is an opportunity he’s been waiting for all his career.
“I believe we have a good opportunity in this Tour. It’s a shame that Froome and Contador are not here, and I want to deliver to them my wishes of a fast recovery,” Valverde said. “I survived this first part of the Tour, despite the setbacks, and I overcame everything …. Now the real Tour starts.”