Alejandro Valverde remains second overall in the Tour de France following a second hard day in the Pyrenees, but the Movistar leader recognised that it had been anything but straightforward to stay in contention.
After Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) looked strongest yesterday - and briefly put some space between himself and Valverde over the top of the Porte de Bales - today (Wednesday), Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale) gained 49 seconds on the Spaniard. Not only that, Valverde seemed to be on the point of cracking half way up the ascent to Pla d'Adet.
In a very uneven performance, Valverde finally gained time on Pinot - five seconds - with a last kilometre charge for the line. But that only came after he had regained contact with the Frenchman's group of chasers, also containing gc contenders Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) thanks to some top-level ‘sherpa-ing' by his Movistar team-mates, Jesus Herrada and Jon Izaguirre.
Valverde had gone into the Pyrenees talking about taking advantage of any signs of weakness in Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). That idea seems very unlikely now, and instead the Movistar veteran is constantly being tested for chinks in his own armour by his French rivals. Yesterday's final climb, he recognised later, had been anything but straightforward, but he was adamant he had never been in serious danger.
"I went through a difficult moment, but I kept going at a steady pace," Valverde insisted on biciciclismo.com. "The team was spectacular and we managed to save the day perfectly."
"I started riding steadily again, and I could limit the gap on Nibali and Peraud."
"The podium is closer than ever, but it's true that Pinot and Peraud are breathing down my neck." Peraud, he said, "is a better time triallist, so he's the most dangerous rival I've got."
However, when it comes to holding onto second overall, perhaps it is tomorrow's climbs themselves that constitute Valverde's most serious challenge. "I know Hautacam very well, and it will be a very tough day, particularly after these two stages in the mountains" he added. "I will have to do the best I can. This is the Tour: nothing is easy."