By Shane Stokes
Heading in the Tour de France, many observers felt that there were two clear favourites. 2007 runner up Cadel Evans was one, of course, but so too was Dauphiné Libéré winner Alejandro Valverde. He'd shown strong form at select points of the season and sounded confident in the pre-race press conference.
Taking the first stage of the Tour and wearing yellow for several days seemed to confirm that standing. He finished second to Riccardo Riccò on the stage to Super Besse and although he was only 23rd in the stage four time trial, he headed into the Pyrenees in sixth place, just 1'12 behind then-race leader Kim Kirchen (Columbia).
Stage ten to Hautacam didn't go so well, though. He and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) were dropped prior to the final climb and never regained contact with the CSC-driven main group. Valverde finished 5'52 behind Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval – Scott), and conceded three minutes 35 seconds to eventual Tour winner Carlos Sastre (CSC).
The rest of the race saw something of a return to form, with the exception of the penultimate day time trial. He conceded a further 1'51 to Sastre there, finally ending the race 7'12 off yellow in ninth overall.
"This Tour gave us a mixture of glory and misery," said Caisse d'Epargne general manager Eusebio Unzúe. "We had very good moments with Alejandro Valverde and Luis León Sánchez's spectacular stage wins and the general behaviour of the team. We also had very hard moments, most of all when Oscar Pereiro crashed.
"Alejandro's crash was also very significant because from then on he has never again been the same rider as he was in the first stages. He suffered from some consequences [of that] which did not allow him to be at one hundred percent in some key moments."
That necessitated a chance in targets, according to Unzúe. "It is true that we started the race with the intention of fighting for the podium and that the time lost in Hautacam, in the Pyrenees, made us change our plans. From that moment on, we worked most of all to try to win one more stage.
"To win the Tour is something very complicated because it is absolutely necessary to show regularity every day during the three weeks, in the mountains as well as in the time trials. Alejandro was with the best in 80% of the mountain stages and his performance in the Alps has been very good, but he was too weak in the time trials. That put the podium out of our reach."