The third day of Pyrenean racing in the Tour de France proved one too many for Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) whose tenacious hold on the provisional podium finally cracked in the face of a combined onslaught by Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.Fr) and Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2R-La Mondiale).
The joint French attack, spearheaded by Pinot and with Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) also present, proved too much for the Spanish veteran, who had attacked on the downhill of the Tourmalet, perhaps to gain time before the Hautacam climb, but was finally reeled in by a long line of Astana riders.
Isolated from his teammates - who had played a crucial role in keeping him in contention on Wednesday - Valverde did not crack completely. But with his strength on the ebb, and Pinot hammering away in the group ahead, the gap nonetheless yawned to over 30 seconds before Valverde, at the head of a string of half a dozen rivals who did not collaborate at any point, could stop the French duo and van Garderen steadily widening the gap.
Finally tenth, Valverde lost 42 seconds to Pinot and 37 second to Peraud and he has now slumped fourth overall. However, with a gap of just 15 seconds separating the second placed Pinot and the Spaniard, and only two seconds between himself in fourth and Peraud, the Movistar rider was adamant that all was not lost in his his pre-race objective of finishing on the podium.
“It wasn’t a good day but it wasn’t a disaster,” Valverde, well wrapped up against the gusting wind, told French television. “I had to find my own pace, and it took me a while to do that. Then I could hold it at around 30 seconds, but the headwind made it a lot harder.”
“The podium isn’t impossible. I lost time today, they might lose it on Saturday.” Since June, too, Valverde is also the reigning Spanish national time trial champion, which should provide something of a boost to his motivation.
Without actually being ill, Valverde said he has been “under the weather” for the last few days, that he has been “suffering a lot recently” and that he is “very, very tired.”
“I felt fine on the Tourmalet and again on the final climb. But my body’s close to the limit now, like everybody, and you just have to do what you can.”
Asked about the time gaps, Valverde responded, “It’s all very tight. If I’ve got good legs on Saturday, I could even get back to second overall.”
Valverde deliberately cut down on his stage racing program this season in a bid to be at 100 percent in July and again in the Vuelta in September. The World’s, too, could be another objective. However, he has been racing and winning since February, when he took three stages and the overall of the Vuelta a Andalusia and he was also in form in the Ardennes, with an impressive victory in the Fleche Wallone and second in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It remains to be seen whether his form remains strong enough for him to clinch - for the first time in his career - a top three Grand Tour finish in a race that is not the Vuelta a España.