Movistar were first up on the second day of press conferences on the Tour de France’s floating HQ, the Mega Smeralda. Sitting alongside Colombian climbing ace Nairo Quintana and team director Eusebio Unzue, Movistar leader Alejandro Valverde admitted Sky’s Chris Froome is very much the rider to beat over the next three weeks, but declared himself as more confident and convinced of his chances than he’s ever been. “If all goes well I see myself as finishing on the podium, although I can’t say which step that will be,” said the 33-year-old Spaniard.
“The Tour is very long and very hard as well this year. Froome is the big favourite, he’s got a great team around him, but we’ve got a great team as well,” said Valverde. “There are lots of stages where things could change, the kind of stages that we saw last year at the Vuelta where Alberto [Contador] took the lead from Purito [Rodríguez]. It wasn’t one of the toughest stages, a medium mountain day, but the whole race turned there.”
Valverde refused to be drawn on his team’s tactics beyond the opening few days of the race, but did admit: “The one key thing we are going to have to do is to break the rhythm of Team Sky.” He added: “The key thing during the first week is to stay out of trouble because it will be very nervous, so I will ride more towards the front in order to avoid crashes.”
The Spaniard said he has plenty of respect for Froome’s achievements and ability, but has no fear of him. He explained he’s been buoyed by the strength of his team and also his impressions of the course. “The route is not unfavourable to me – it’s well balanced. I certainly like the mountain stages,” he said. “Looking at the first time trial I only see Froome as being a level above the other contenders. But we’ve got a very strong team for the team time trial, one that could even fight for victory, and the course of the final time trial suits me well.”
Quintana has spent the last two months preparing for the Tour at home in Colombia. Although talked up by many as a dark horse for the yellow jersey, the 23-year-old Tour debutant played down his own prospects, insisting he is at the Tour to help Valverde in whatever way he can. But he acknowledged he likes riding in France and is looking forward to his Tour debut, describing it as “a dream come true”.
Asked if he had given any thought to challenging for the white jersey of best young rider, he said: “I’m not thinking of it at all for now. I’m just focusing on Alejandro. We will see how the race unfolds and then the team strategy might change. One of my most important tasks will be to break the momentum of the Sky train.”
Winner of the Tour of the Basque Country back in April, Quintana pointed out he’s also got a decent record in France. “I do like the climbs in France. I first revealed myself on them at the Tour de l’Avenir and I’ve done well here again at the Route du Sud and the Dauphiné. I’m coming here with no fear whatsoever even though it’s my debut. I can tell you I was very happy when they told me that I was going to be making my debut in France,” he said.
Team boss Unzue also stressed that Quintana is in the race to learn and help Valverde, but admitted that could change. “We’ve got a lot of hope for Nairo’s future. He could be a Tour de France contender and even winner in the short to medium term, but for now he’s here to learn,” he stated.
“I’m afraid to say this is my 31st Tour, so I’ve got a good idea of how to approach the race. We’ve almost always come into it with a leader and a future leader alongside him. We started with Arroyo and Delgado, then it was Delgado and Indurain, then Indurain and the likes of Zülle, Olano and Mancebo, and now we’re doing the same with Alejandro and Nairo. But we’re not going to put the brake on him if he shows he’s got the form and the confidence to make an impact. The main goal, though, is to give Nairo some base experience of the Tour, so that he can see what the race is all about and has something to work on, so that he can come back here in future with bigger ambitions.”
As for his team leader, Unzue said: “The key thing for Alejandro is to get out of the three stages on this island safely. I think it’s clear Chris Froome is the number one favourite, but the Tour de France is a race apart. All kinds of things can happen, good and bad. One of Froome’s weaknesses is that he lacks experience as a leader in races of this stature, and that’s certainly the case when he’s compared to Alejandro, Purito and Alberto.”