Although Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) retained second place overall at the Tour de France after the stage 11 time trial to Mont-Saint-Michel, he conceded a further two minutes to Chris Froome (Sky) and acknowledged afterwards that the yellow jersey is on another level to the rest of the field.
Sitting in the passenger seat of a Movistar team car on a dusty road beyond the finish line, Valverde held a lengthy discussion with team manager Eusebio Unzue before rolling down the window to speak to the reporters waiting outside.
"It's clear that two minutes is a bit of time to lose. There's Froome and then there's everyone else, but I'm still up there with the best of the rest so I'm happy," Valverde said. "I was regular in my time trial and I felt better at the end. I came through an important test so I have to be happy."
Remarkably, considering his 33 years and the 18 months he served on the sidelines in 2010 and 2011 when he was belatedly suspended for his links to blood doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, Valverde has never been as well-placed on the general classification at the midpoint of a Tour de France as he is this year, although he is still some 3:25 down on Froome.
The Murcia native has Colombian climbing talent Nairo Quintana for company in the Movistar line-up and the team flexed its collective muscle by eliminating Sky's Richie Porte from the general classification contest on stage 9 in the Pyrenees. Given Froome's isolation in the finale, however, that stage to Bagnères-de-Bigorre was perhaps something of a missed opportunity for Valverde.
"We'll see what happens in the Alps but Froome is the leader and he is the strongest," Valverde said. "We'll have to see what we can do in the coming stages and if it's possible to attack him. There's still the terrain there to gain some time on him, but there are stages where we could lose time too."
While Valverde is bullish about his prospects of holding off fellow countryman Alberto Contador and Belkin's Bauke Mollema for a podium place, the million dollar question is whether it is possible to unseat Froome. "It's going to be very difficult," he said.
Mollema happy with time trial showing
Across the road outside a Belkin team van, Bauke Mollema was echoing Valverde's sentiments as he warmed down on the rollers alongside teammate Laurens Ten Dam. Mollema defended his third place overall with a solid 11th place on the stage but saw his deficit to Froome extend to 3:37.
"Froome is the best rider here but I am satisfied with my time today," said Mollema said. "A course as flat as that isn't really my thing but when you take back some time on most of the other GC riders, then you can be satisfied."
Mollema finished ahead of Valverde, Contador and Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) in the time trial and retains a provisional hold of the third step of the podium, 17 seconds ahead of Contador, but Froome appears to be out of reach.
"We haven't beaten him too many times but you never know because in cycling there are always chances," Mollema said. "I think I'm in really good shape and I just hope to have that shape in the last week also."