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Rating the Tour de France favorites, from W(iggins) to Z

Alejandro Valverde (SPA) ★★★ and Juanjo Cobo (SPA), Movistar ★★★

If ever a Tour de France course were designed for Alejandro Valverde, it was 2011. But the Spaniard nicknamed the “Green Bullet” wasn’t in the race, serving a suspension for his role in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal.

The 2012 course, on the other hand, was clearly not designed for Valverde, who can hang in the high mountains and is best in the shorter, punchier climbs of the Ardennes and Vosges. Valverde is back in 2012, but may share duty as the Movistar leader with Vuelta a España champ Juanjo Cobo.

The Movistar captain is motivated for a podium, nonetheless, and believes he can achieve it. The 2009 Vuelta a España winner claims he has been working on his time trialing after returning from his ban, and his TT in stage 7 in the Tour de Suisse backed up his claim. Valverde finished 19th there, 1:22 down; notable for a non-specialist.

Over the course of 100km of time trials, that time gap can open up substantially, which is the primary reason that few share Valverde’s confidence about the likelihood of an overall podium.

On the strength of his TT, Valverde finished inside the top 10 at the Tour de Suisse this month while riding in service of Rui Costa, who took the win and praised his teammate afterward. That, along with Movistar’s near constant presence this year on the front of the peloton in races likes Paris-Nice, has proven that while the team’s budget may not be on-par with the deep-pocketed “super teams,” it is nonetheless a force that will make its mark all season.

Valverde said earlier this year that the classics would help him build the deep base he lacked following his ban. It is in the race’s third week where we may start to see weakness from the consistent Spaniard.

“The one-day classics will help me a little as preparation for my main target, the Tour de France,” said Valverde. “I am still lacking a little in stamina even if I have been training really hard.”

The Tour de France stages that Valverde has won in the past were transition stages. Similarly, his stage-3 Paris-Nice win this year had frequent, short climbs and a tough uphill finish. He nonetheless has the ability to make an impression on the GC by making the most of those types of stages. Plus, he has the support of some strong climbers, who will help him get through the Pyrènèes and put pressure on the rest of the peloton.

This year there are plenty of stages suited to Valverde’s style, featuring frequent, punchy hills that threaten to demolish the legs of sprinters looking for a stage win, as well as overall contenders that prefer extended climbing. He could certainly bag a stage win in Seraing as the peloton skirts the Ardennes after leaving Liège. The 198km stage jumps up and down, but none of the climbs are longer than 3km — Valverde terrain.

What Valverde lacks in time-trialing ability, Movistar teammate Juanjo Cobo makes up for. Depending on how the wind blows, it isn’t improbable that Cobo would take over the leadership role for Movistar during the race.

At the beginning of the year, team manager Eusebio Unzue said that Cobo would have his own right to the overall in France. While his primary objective this year is defending his title as the Vuelta champion, if Cobo should happen to snatch a result in the Tour along the way, he surely won’t complain.

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