Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) could not hold back the tears after crossing the finish line on the mountaintop of Peyragudes on Thursday afternoon. Following a two-year suspension for his implication in Operación Puerto, the Spaniard has made his come-back to the very top of the sport complete by achieving his fourth Tour de France stage victory.
Valverde was part of the stage's initial breakaway, and with the help of two of his teammates, the Movistar rider was able to go on a solo move on the day's third of five categorised climbs, with 36 kilometres left to race. He held off the chasers until the very end, despite a dangerously fast race for the yellow jersey unfolding behind him on the last ascent.
"I was just overwhelmed with the emotion," the 32-year-old said about his outburst of joy and relief in the finish. "It's been such a difficult Tour for me, for the team. Looking back, already my first victory this season at the Tour Down Under was very emotional, but a great victory like this one today triggers even greater emotions."
Certainly, the weight of mishaps that Valverde experienced at this Tour and the need for his team to win a stage fell off his shoulders once he crossed the line. Due to several crashes in the first week of the race, as well as a puncture just before the final climb on stage 7 to La Planche des Belles Filles, the team leader who was initially eying the overall classification had lost too much time on GC to live up to this goal.
"It's been a really hard Tour for me as I had a lot of bad luck with crashes and punctures, and lost too much time on the overall classification to be able to come back," he continued. "The only objective left was a stage win, and that was going to be really hard, but with the help of my team, in the end, I was able to take it."
Valverde spent the day in front, at first in a breakaway of eight riders, which later grew to 17 men, including two of his teammates Rui Costa and Ruben Plaza. The group was able to convince overall contender Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) to drop back in order to obtain more freedom. "At first, the peloton did not give us too much time. We all knew that if Nibali stayed with us, it would be very difficult to truly get the break up the road. Finally, he renounced and I have to thank him," Valverde conceded.
In the penultimate climb of Port de Bales, the breakaway disintegrated under the pressure of various Spanish-led attacks, amongst which Valverde's teammates. As the peloton still loomed near, a little over two minutes behind, the Spaniard bridged up to his teammate Costa and then went on a solo raid.
"In the break, nobody really wanted to collaborate, everyone was keeping a little energy back," he recalled. "But I had my teammates Costa and Plaza with me, who helped me a lot, and I have to thank them and the whole team for this win."
As the fight for the yellow jersey unleashed behind him, Valverde drove hard in the hope to make it to the finish before the likes of overall leader Bradley Wiggins and his Sky teammate Chris Froome, as well as the other top GC contenders. "I was very scared that they would come back to me from behind, as I know these are very strong riders, so I gave everything I possibly had. With 500 metres to go, I understood that I had won, I was very, very happy. Thanks again to my teammates, who did a great job for me today."
The victory was especially important in view of Valverde's recent past. "I have served my time, and I spent two years training hard without racing. This year, I obtained five important victories and I'm very happy to be back at the Tour de France and win here again. It makes up for everything, it's a great personal emotion and the consecration of all the work I've done," he stated, however failing to make a strong anti-doping statement at the post-race press conference such as David Millar's after his stage win on stage 12.
"What can I say on the fight against doping? I think it has to continue for the sake of cycling, which is such a beautiful sport. We have to go forward," was all he wanted to concede to the journailsts on the issue.