Spain's Alejandro Valverde is currently Vincenzo Nibali's closest pursuer in the Tour de France. The Movistar veteran says he could not be more satisfied with his second place - his best position ever at this point in the Tour - but he is still prepared to fight to try and improve on that placing.
"I'm more or less where I expected to be, this is quite a different Tour because of Contador and Froome's abandons, Nibali is very strong, but I'm pleased to be where I am," said Valverde - who began the Tour with the stated aim of making the podium - on Monday's rest day.
Asked about whether he felt he needed to gain further time on the rest of the field, given his margin on third placed Romain Bardet, just 13 seconds behind, Valverde said "It's clear that the more time I get, the better, there are three very hard Tour stages ahead and who knows what could happen. But we shouldn't give up, we should always try to do better.
"There are three hard stages ahead and the more time you have, the better, so the idea is to do three good stages. If anybody's got to gain time, it's not me, it's the riders who are right behind me."
Asked if he was more worried about Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) or about Bardet, the two riders who are closest behind him overall, with Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) in fifth, 89 seconds behind the Spaniard, Valverde replied "Bardet and Pinot form part of a new generation, and it's good for France to have two riders fighting for the Best Young Rider's classification and the podium.
"We are going to try and get more time on one these three stages, we have a strategy for that - but which one, I'm not saying."
At the same time, he hasn't forgotten Nibali and trying to oust him from the top place overall. "He's the strongest rider of the Tour, although he can always have a bad day and we will have to try and make the most of it. But we're not giving up, we'll still keep on trying to win."
Rewind 12 months and Valverde was lying second overall in the Tour after the Pyrenees last year, but he then lost a lot of time on a theoretically straightforward stage three across the flatlands of France. This year, his challenge to say second is not so much the remaining flat terrain, he has always shone in the Pyrenees - winning a stage to Piau-Engaly in 2012 and with one of his first-ever Grand Tour wins on the Envalira in the Vuelta 2003.
Spaniard talks about his rivals, the Pyrenean stages and the difficult time trial still ahead
Valverde says the penultimate time trial could allow at least one of his closest rivals to present him with problems. And should the same time gap remain after the Pyrenees, Valverde argues that "looking back at the last time trial of previous Tours, the most dangerous is clearly Tejay van Garderen. I don't think, judging from past history, that Pinot or Bardet are stronger than me.
"But bear in mind that it's a very difficult time trial and in the last time trial, anything can happen and it's also extremely long. For now, though, van Garderen is the most dangerous."
As for which of the there mountain stages is the hardest, Valverde replied, "All three of the Pyrenean stages are dangerous: tomorrow because it's after a rest day and very long, on Wednesday because it's got four hard climbs, and on Thursday because we're into the third day of the mountains, and that automatically makes it harder."
Valverde recognized that the pressure on the French riders from the local media to take France's first podium finish since 1997 is "hard for them, but it's also something which will give them an extra boost to their motivation, too. They may be nervous, but that's not really an advantage for me. They're young and finally they've got a great opportunity to go for the white jersey and to be on the podium."
Asked if he would be prepared to rip the Tour wide open, risk the podium in order to try and win, Movistar sports director Eusebio Unzué produced the typically ambiguous answer he favours when asked these sorts of questions, replying "up to now Nibai's been the strongest ... we can still create complicated moments in the race.
"Let's see what happens. It's easy to make plans in the race, but a large part of cycling is improvisation, depending on what your form feels like in the morning of a stage. In any case, I think these next three stages will be very interesting."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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