After being cast adrift on the final climb to Risoul on Saturday, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) managed to steady the ship on stage 16, the Tour de France's opening day in the Pyrenees, distancing two of his principal rivals for a podium place en route to Bagnères-de-Luchon.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) each conceded ground after yielding to the insistence of Movistar’s pressing on the Port de Balès, and Valverde finished alongside yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) to retain his second place on general classification.
"It's a big step towards making the podium," Valverde told reporters immediately on crossing the finish line.
The Spaniard remains some 4:37 off the all but unassailable Nibali, and is 29 seconds clear of the third-placed Pinot. Van Garderen – the strongest time triallist of his podium rivals – is now almost five minutes back, while Bardet is 2:03 behind.
"It's the first day back in the mountains and we knew what could happen, so we have to be happy with what we did today," Valverde said. "It's a pretty significant difference. We would have been happy with gaining one minute on van Garderen, but three and a half is a pretty significant gap. Now we just have to hope that I don’t have a bad day."
The stage immediately following a rest day can often be a curious affair at a Grand Tour. While some riders struggle to ease their way back into the routine after the short lay-off, others can emerge seemingly re-energised. Certainly, Movistar's collective strength on the Port de Balès suggested that they had responded well to their repose.
Giovanni Visconti’s long turn at the base of the climb reduced the yellow jersey group to just 25 or so riders, and then Beñat Inxausti whittled their number down still further with a similarly lengthy stint of brisk pace-setting. Aided by John Gadret, Valverde was then able to follow the accelerations of Pinot near the summit of the climb.
"We went on the attack. We started the climb off at a very fast pace and I think that work paid off in the end," Valverde said. "Visconti kicked it off and Beñat continued the work. They did a lot of damage and we were able to gain time."
Five times a podium finisher at the Vuelta a España, Valverde's best placing at the Tour remains his 5th place of 2007. In the intervening period, he has served a ban after his DNA was belatedly matched to blood bags seized from Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes as part of the Operacion Puerto investigation.
Valverde won a stage in nearby Peyragudes at the 2012 Tour, his first after his return from suspension, and he is now hoping that the Pyrenees will be similarly kind as he bids for a place on the podium. With Pinot on song and with Jean-Christophe Péraud – on paper, a stronger time triallist – lurking in fourth overall, there is some distance still to run.
"We'll continue with the same goal, which is the podium in Paris, and we're already thinking of tomorrow’s stage," Valverde said.