The strongest rider does not always win the Tour de France. Tactics, recovery, experience and how riders deal with the unexpected, all play a huge part in deciding who pulls on the final yellow jersey, who secures a place on the podium and who will look back at their race with regret.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is third overall, 2:47 behind Vincenzo Nibali but continues to fly under the radar, letting the responsibility of race leadership weigh on the Sicilian's shoulders. He is the true dark horse of this year's Tour de France and is probably worrying Nibali and Astana more than any other rider.
Valverde knows to keep a low profile, letting Nibali hog the spotlight, while he saves every drop of energy for the racing. He prefers to sit in the Movistar bus until minutes before the start, answering questions with his legs propped up and with an air of calm and composure.
The Spaniard won the 2009 Vuelta a Espana and has worn yellow at the Tour de France, but has often failed to live up to expectations. This year, with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador out of the Tour, he knows he has never had a better chance at victory and is ready to take his opportunity and try to gain time on Nibali and his rivals in the Alps and especially the Pyrenees.
"I'd say three or four riders can fight for the top placing. Right now, I’m thinking half about getting on the podium, but I’m also thinking about finishing higher up. I’ve got good legs, the team’s good," he said as the Alps loomed large on the horizon.
"There are five or six riders who can battle for the podium, but I can’t just sit tight and accept finishing third in Paris. I’m in a good place, but I can’t just settle for that, I’ve got to fight for a better placing. I don’t know if I’m Nibali’s number one rival, there are a lot of good riders up there, like Porte too."
Valverde lost several minutes and any chance of success at last year’s Tour when he punctured and was dropped by the front group on the flat stage to Saint-Amand-Monrond. He has been more fortunate this year.
"I’m feeling motivated, surviving all those problems barring one little crash on the pavé is not so bad. There have been no easier days but I’ve got good opportunities in front of me now," he explained.
"We’ve had a lot of very hard stages, with cold, rain and now heat, stages which have used up a lot of energy. The mountain stages from here on are going to be very hard indeed and the fast average speed means the change of pace is going to be even more noticeable than usual."
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