By Shane Stokes in Brest
The absence of a prologue plus a reportedly-tough uphill finish at the end of stage one of this year's Tour de France will lead to a very different opening day in the race. Breakaway specialists, the more versatile sprinters and perhaps even the GC contenders will all be in with a chance of nabbing the victory and thus taking yellow in Plumelec on Saturday.
Alejandro Valverde already demonstrated that he can win an uphill sprint at the opening stage of the Dauphiné Libéré, where he beat Thor Hushovd, and all eyes will be on the Spaniard to see if he will top the podium in Brittany. He was asked at the team's pre-race press conference if he would consider going for the maillot jaune, or if he would prefer to stay out of the limelight for now. His answer was that the victory would be desirable, even if it would mean his Caisse d'Epargne team would have expend energy early in the race to defend a lead.
"Having seen the parcours of this stage, it is one which would suit me perfectly," he stated. "It is the first day of the Tour and everyone will be motivated to show their form, to try to win. The roads will be twisting and it will be necessary to avoid risks. It is certain that I and the whole team would love a stage victory.
"To take the yellow jersey in the first day would be fabulous, even if taking it would also bring responsibilities. We will see how things go."
The new Spanish Champion is feeling optimistic as the Tour gets underway. After withdrawing due to injury in 2005 and 2006, he reached Paris for the first time last year. His sixth place finish was slightly disappointing to some observers, but the team stressed throughout the race that the priority was to get that first finish under his belt and to learn for the future.
This time round, he is targeting a top-three place. He is seen by many as the main challenger to Cadel Evans, and was asked if a podium finish – rather than the victory – would indeed satisfy him. "I think so," he responded. "Last year was the first Tour that I finished. I was sixth and I was very satisfied when I got to Paris. This year, as I have already said, I am here to fight for a podium. I would love to win but if I finish second or third, I would be satisfied. I have more years ahead to aim for that."
Team manager Eusebio Unzue is feeling confident heading into the race. "We came here with a team in the best condition possible," he stated. "After the recent results that the team has got, I think everyone is in very good form. The objective for the whole team is to help Alejandro and do what we can to help him reach the podium of this Tour."
Valverde echoed this. "My form is very good and so too that of the team. We are here with the ambition of doing what we can to fight for the podium of the Tour. I think after what I showed in the Dauphiné and the Spanish Championships, my form is good. I hope that luck and health will accompany me as I chase this goal."
At the conference, the point was made that the period between the end of the Dauphiné and the finish of the Tour de France is a full six weeks. As winner of the first of these two events, Valverde was asked if he can hold his condition for that long. He's not one hundred percent certain, but feels that it is possible.
"I think winning is important, psychologically and physically, and is good for the motivation," he stated. "It is true that it is important to use as little energy as possible as to keep something for the third week. Evans, Menchov, Sastre, the Schleck brothers, Cunego will attack then. But for the moment I feel very good. I won the Spanish Championships two weeks after the Dauphiné and feel my condition is the same as in that race. I hope that things go well and stay good for the third week."