By Brecht Decaluwé in Plumelec
On the opening stage of the Tour de France, Spanish champion Alejandro Valverde displayed the kind of riding which won him three Ardennes Classics in recent years, gave him his second career Tour stage win and, most importantly, the first yellow jersey of the Tour. With that feat, the Caisse d'Epargne rider gave a seamless transition of the yellow jersey from one Spaniard, last year's winner Alberto Contador, to another.
Valverde had already shown twice in Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2006 and 2008), and once in La Flèche Wallonne (2006) that he packs a powerful uphill sprint, and on the two kilometre-long grade averaging 6.2% towards Plumelec, the 'Prince of Spain' showed the other general classification contenders that he is on top form. He was the only rider who could hold the wheel of this year's Flèche Wallonne winner Kim Kirchen, and in the final metres he blasted away towards the victory. Along with the yellow jersey, he also snuck in a one second advantage on Cadel Evans, and seven seconds on some other general classification contenders.
"I'm in deliriously happy," Valverde reacted after crossing the line. "I dedicate this victory to all the fans that supported me all these years. I also want to thank the general cycling fans along the road. Some aren't the greatest specialists, but they show up because they love cycling as a whole," Valverde said.
The Spanish champion realized that he hasn't won the Tour de France yet, although he did gave his adversaries a mental knock. "I found a finale that suited me perfectly, so no, this shouldn't be considered as a message towards my rivals," the 28 year-old from Murcia said. Even though Valverde was possibly the best suited for this stage, it turned out that he hadn't done a reconnaissance of the short climb like he probably did for the Alpine cols, or the Pyrenees. "I haven't seen this climb before," Valverde admitted, "but I was on the wheel of Kirchen and earlier I had [team-mate José Ivan] Gutierrez who delivered me perfectly at the foot of the climb."
In 2005, Valverde won his first stage in the Tour de France by beating Lance Armstrong to the line in Courchevel during the tenth stage. All sorts of circumstances kept him from other highlights in the Tour, but after a sixth place in the general classification last year, the Murcian has now stepped forward to follow Alberto Contador as winner of the Tour de France. "I wished that [Contador] was here, but I'm proud to be the next rider to wear the yellow jersey. Hopefully I can also wear it in Paris," Valverde smiled. "I realize that it is still a very long way to Paris and especially in the high mountains it's going to be very tough."
With the next two stages expected to end in a bunch sprint, and having been awarded a one second time gap on the line in Plumelec, it seems unlikely the Spanish champion will end up losing his jersey before the time trial in Cholet on Tuesday. Wearing the yellow jersey is the dream of every rider, and it surely brings some extra pressure along with it. Valverde didn't agree with this theory though. "No, I don't think I'll have extra pressure since I'm the one who has already achieved two of his goals for this Tour, namely winning a stage and taking the yellow jersey," the 'Prince of Spain' reacted. "Keeping the jersey won't be easy because there is still a long way to go, but I'll certainly try to enjoy it while I have it."
Once again Valverde – named, but cleared in the Puerto case – was asked about his involvement regarding the Puerto case at the post-race press grilling. The question from the journalist was welcomed by a lot of sighs from his colleagues and Valverde didn't comment on the question. This speculation will probably continue to follow Valverde throughout his career. Another cycling journalist wanted to know whether Valverde feared being questioned by the CONI when the race passes in Italy in two weeks. "If they want to talk to me, that's OK. If not, then that's OK too," Valverde pointed out that he wasn't worrying too much about it.