Alejandro Valverde's seemingly habitual giornata no cost him overall victory at the Giro d'Italia on the road to Corvara last weekend, but the Movistar rider will stand on the final podium on Sunday after dislodging Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) from third place on the penultimate stage 20.
"I'm really very happy," Valverde said. "I think you could see that from how I punched the air when I crossed the line, it was as if I had won. We placed third overall and even almost second in the end."
Valverde had begun Saturday's short but exceedingly demanding leg to Sant'Anna di Vinadio just 43 seconds off a podium berth and facing a Kruijswijk whose powers were significantly diminished by the injuries he sustained in a crash on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello the previous afternoon.
When Vincenzo Nibali's inevitable – and ultimately Giro-winning – attack arrived on the Colle della Lombarda, Valverde and ephemeral maglia rosa Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) were the only riders initially able to follow.
Though they were distanced when Nibali kicked again shortly afterwards, Valverde continued to put time into a struggling Kruijswijk all the way to the top, and again on the short final climb to Sant'Anna di Vinadio, where he was helped by teammate Giovanni Visconti, a member of the day's early break. Valverde placed 7th on the stage, just one place and 13 seconds behind Nibali, but – crucially – 1:13 clear of Kruijswijk.
"There were so many tifosi on the final climb that I couldn't hear the time gaps in my earpiece, but I knew I was putting time on those behind," Valverde said. "We were climbing strong and I could see Nibali, and see that I was even taking time back on him."
The 36-year-old Valverde was making the first Giro appearance of a career that was interrupted for 18 months by the belated ban he received in 2010 after his DNA was matched to blood bags seized from Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Winner of the Vuelta a España in 2009 and third overall at last year's Tour de France, Valverde has now finished on the podium of each of the Grand Tours.
"It's nothing short of incredible for me. Being on the podium of all three Grand Tours is a phenomenal achievement for my career," Valverde said.
When Valverde shipped three minutes on the Dolomite tappone last weekend, he blamed his travails on racing at high altitude, and the problem arose once again near the Giro's highest point – the 2,744-metre-high Colle dell'Agnello – on stage 18. On Saturday, however, Valverde seemed unaffected by the passage over the mighty Col de la Bonette and Colle della Lombarda.
"In the end, after struggling so much at altitude, it seemed like I got used to it, because my legs during the final climbs were fantastic," Valverde said. "The job we did all day, from the first attacks in Vars, with the whole team helping me out in the Col de la Bonette, plus that final hand from Visconti here at Sant'Anna, was marvellous."
Valverde will finish the Giro 1:17 behind Nibali, who was a man reanimated in the Alps these past two days after a trying race to that point. "He truly deserves this final victory. I was stronger than him on some stages, but he beat me on others," Valverde said of Nibali. "Both of us, and Chaves too, deserve to be on the podium."
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