When a French television crew arrived in the media scrum surrounding Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) after stage 14 of the Tour de France, their opening gambit was met with an arch response worthy of the man who seems to be the race’s pantomime villain, or at least the chief antagonist to the young home hopefuls, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot.
Asked what had caused him to crack and conceded 30 seconds to the duo in the closing kilometres at Risoul, Valverde tilted his head to one side for a theatrical double take. "What?" he said in French, before switching to his native tongue to offer his explanation.
"With three or three and a half kilometres to go, Pinot’s front wheel accidentally went into my rear mech," Valverde said. "It didn’t work well after that, it was jumping from one cog to another. In the end, I had to go all out in the big ring because the problem was worse in the small ring. Maybe it wasn’t my best day, either, but we defended ourselves."
Like Pinot, Bardet and Tejay van Garderen – everyone, in fact, apart from Jean-Christophe Peraud – Valverde did not attempt to match yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali’s acceleration when he punched his way clear with four kilometres remaining.
"Nibali is the strongest, but a lot of us are close together behind him. My rivals for the podium are Bardet and Pinot, and van Garderen too," said Valverde, who was careful to follow the American when he began forcing shortly afterwards.
Initially, they pulled away from Pinot and Bardet, but the French youngsters quickly danced their way back up, and in the final two kilometres, Valverde was distanced. He crossed the finish line in 10th place on the stage, 1:24 down on the stage winner Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), a minute down on Nibali and Peraud, and – most significantly, perhaps – over half a minute behind Pinot, Bardet and van Garderen.
Valverde remains in second place overall, but he is now a distant 4:37 behind Nibali, and behind him, the net is drawing in a little tighter. He is now just 13 seconds ahead of Bardet, 29 up on Pinot and 1:12 clear of van Garderen.
"Of course it was difficult today, but yesterday went well and I managed to make a few small differences," said Valverde, referring to the gains he made at Chamrousse – including the three seconds he had picked up on Pinot after sitting on his wheel and then out-sprinting him at the summit.
Valverde reportedly apologized to Pinot at the start in Grenoble on Saturday, but his status as the villain of the piece was, of course, not earned on this Tour alone. Although banned for two years after a lengthy process that eventually saw his DNA matched to blood bags seized as part of the Operacion Puerto investigation, Valverde has never confessed to blood doping under the supervision of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Now 34 years of age, he has never been as well-placed after two weeks of the Tour, where his best overall finish is his 5th place of 2007.
Unzue warns Movistar will fight for the podium
Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue – part of the staff that delivered Tour wins for Pedro Delgado, Miguel Indurain and Oscar Pereiro over the years – acknowledged that Nibali’s lead is all but unassailable, but warned that the battle for podium places would be keenly-contested.
"What we’ve seen is that the leader is reinforcing his overall position with each passing day and that there are five riders of a similar level, including Alejandro, who are going to fight for the podium," Unzue said. "That’s what we now face going into the Pyrenees and with the final time trial."
Unzue only learned of Valverde’s mechanical mishap when speaking to reporters at the finish, but was typically pragmatic in his assessment. "If something happened then it wasn’t so bad that he actually had to stop," he said. "But when you’re on the limit, any little problem logically leaves you out of the game, and the rest have taken advantage of that situation. Losing those few seconds are important, but he’s still maintaining his options open for finishing on the podium."