Alejandro Valverde has maintained the good form he displayed during January's Tour Down Under with a solid showing in the first stage of the Tour Méditerranéen Cycliste Professionnel in Souvain.
Shortened to 95km, the stage won by Française des Jeux's Yauheni Hutarovich was cold, windy and the early pace took its toll on the field. Whilst the Belarusian grabbed line honours, Valverde looks set to make a run on the overall title with Mt Faron beckoning on the final day.
"The first stage should have been 123km long but yesterday the organisers told us that it would be shorter - only 95 kilometres," said Valverde. "It was very windy today and considering the fact that the stage only started at 1:30pm, we thought it was a good idea to go and see the first kilometres of the stage," he explained.
"We rode about 40km, which was really the right decision for two reasons: it gave us the chance to warm up before a short stage which was supposed to be a fast one - the thermometer indicated three degrees at the time the stage started - and we got to know what the first kilometres looked like and to know exactly from which direction the wind came, which would be very useful."
Armed with its knowledge of the stage, Valverde explained that Caisse d'Epargne took the race to the opposition in attempt to exploit the conditions. "After only three kilometres the entire team forced the pace of the bunch which broke in different parts. We did exactly the same seven kilometres further on and about 20 riders were in the break.
"I was there with three team-mates: Txente García Acosta, Mathieu Drujon and Arnaud Coyot and we worked to the end to increase the gap more and more," said Valverde.
The 2009 Vuelta a España champion says that the result of his team's work in the testing conditions has established his place as a favourite for the title, with four stages remaining.
"I had very good legs and I believe I was able to make the sprint but my team-mates had been working so hard and with a head wind it was rather difficult. The most important thing today is that there is now a difference of two minutes to the majority of our adversaries - I feel really motivated to try and win the race," he said.