For Alejandro Valverde, fourth overall in the 2014 Tour de France is his best-ever result in cycling’s top stage race. But the Spanish time trial champion failed to achieve his pre-Tour target of a podium finish in Paris by one place, after a below-expectations time trial performance - and the mood outside the Movistar team bus after stage 20 was, therefore, one of disappointment.
The 34-year-old Movistar leader had been off throughout the Pyrenees and already slid from second to fourth in the Hautacam stage. Then in the final time trial, he could not benefit from his last chance to turn the tables, instead finishing 28th, more than four minutes down on stage winner Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Fourth overall, therefore, was where Valverde remained on the results sheet. But rather than the 15 seconds that separated the Spaniard from the two Frenchmen ahead of him before Saturday’s stage, in Paris - barring last-minute changes - he will finish considerably further back: two minutes and 3 seconds behind Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and 1:31 behind Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr)
“I did what I could but the legs just weren’t there,” said Valverde - whose best previous overall Tour placing was sixth in 2007. “I wanted to get on the podium, but it just wasn’t possible. I knew what the time references were and that I wasn’t getting any closer to the top three, but my body was just saying ‘no.’”
He blamed - in part - the Tour’s rough weather this year for making it so difficult for him to take a podium placing. “The last week has been very hard, in general this has been a tough race because of the weather. But when you’ve fought and given it everything you’ve got, you can’t ask for more.”
It’s now almost a decade since Valverde won a Tour stage in the Alps, at Courchevel in 2005 ahead of Lance Armstrong - which was the first time he made an impact on the Tour. And after fighting for years to get on the podium in a race in which he has never shone as brightly as he would have liked, Valverde hinted strongly that there may be a change of direction in store next July.
“This isn’t an end of an era, and the Tour isn’t everything. I’ll be back but I don’t know with what kind of objective,” he said: a moot point, given that next year his teammate Nairo Quintana will also be present in the Tour, and Valverde’s overall objectives may well be secondary to the Colombian’s.
There is also the question of how Valverde and Quintana will divide up their responsibilities in the Vuelta this September. Another unresolved issue is how important a target the World’s - in Spain - will be for Valverde, in his continuing quest for a gold medal and rainbow jersey, a quest that started way back with silver in 2003 in Hamilton behind teammate Igor Astarloa.