The Tour de France waits for no man, as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) discovered on the exposed plains of the Indre and Cher on Friday afternoon. When the Spaniard broke a wheel with 85 kilometres to go, the speeding peloton took no pity in his plight and by the time he reached the finish in Saint-Armand-Montrod, he had lost almost ten minutes and all hope of a place on the final overall podium.
The day's stage had been expected to a tranquil one – further calm before the anticipated storm atop Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day – but instead the Belkin squad of Bauke Mollema and Mark Cavendish's Omega Pharma-QuickStep outfit found common cause in the crosswinds that buffeted the peloton in the second hour of racing.
Their combined efforts split the field into three distinct groups, and while Valverde initially sat snugly with his fellow podium contenders in the front echelon, his Tour began to unravel when he halted to change a wheel after a rider behind had brushed against it.
"It was a day marked by bad luck," Valverde said as he sat disbelievingly on the steps of Movistar bus after the stage. "We rode in front all day, just like we should have done, but I had bad luck when one of my wheels broke. With my teammates, we tried to get back to the first group but there were a few teams who accelerated in front."
Belkin were already driving on the front at the time of Valverde's mishap in a bid to help Mollema put his fellow podium contenders in difficulty. While Valverde had no issue with their efforts, he claimed that other teams with seemingly no reason to ride had helped to distance him.
Although a cadre of Movistar riders, including Rui Costa, Ruben Plaza and Imanol Erviti, dropped back to aid Valverde, a slow wheel change meant that he was already almost a minute down when he began to chase. It soon became apparent that the gap was unbridgeable and Valverde ultimately rolled home 9:54 down.
"I can understand why Belkin were riding but Europcar, I don't know why," Valverde said darkly. "I didn't know they were riding for general classification. But that's cycling. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I'd really like to avoid bad luck at the Tour, but something always happens to me."
Injury forced Valverde to abandon his first two Tours, in 2005 and 2006, while he endured bad luck of another sort two years later when a blood test carried out by the Italian Olympic Committee during the race's brief sortie over the border to Pratonevoso eventually led to his suspension for his implication in the Operacion Puerto doping investigation.
With Valverde now lying in 16th place overall, 12:10 down on Chris Froome (Sky), the mantle of Movistar leadership falls to Tour debutant Nairo Quintana, who finished in the yellow jersey group and sits in 8th place.
"We're going to try and help Nairo, who is still well-placed ahead of a very hard week," Valverde said. "We'll try to take advantage of this hard final week – maybe not to win the Tour, but to create some gaps. We'll see how we'll adapt our strategy but he's certainly the best-placed rider on the team."
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