MURET, France (VN) — Alejandro Valverde stepped out of the Movistar team bus Friday morning looking serious. Very serious.
Typically, the veteran Spaniard is laid-back, smiling, and an otherwise shining example of someone who enjoys getting paid to race his bicycle. After three hard days of racing across the Pyrénées, perhaps Valverde had reason to worry.
Chris Froome (Sky) blew the peloton out of the water Tuesday, and then fended off a string of attacks Wednesday and Thursday over the Pyrénées. Movistar couldn’t break the Sky deadlock on the yellow jersey with its double-punch of Valverde and Nairo Quintana, and this Tour is starting to run out of asphalt.
“It’s clear that Froome is strong, and his team even more so,” Valverde said as he clipped into his pedals. “We’ll see what happens in the Alps. Nairo [Quintana] is strong, and I am feeling better every day. There is still a lot of Tour ahead of us.”
That’s a refrain that keeps popping up among Froome’s rivals, but each passing day marks one fewer opportunity. Some, including Tinkoff-Saxo, are all but admitting what is becoming increasingly obvious: Froome looks unstoppable.
Sky’s Nicolas Roche told VeloNews before the start Friday that Froome isn’t letting down his guard just yet. Friday’s transition stage to Rodez was not without its dangers, as a heavy fall by Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) reminded everyone in the peloton that one lapse of concentration or a touch of wheels can spell disaster.
Movistar knows it missed a chance in the Pyrénées to take it to Froome, and with two more transition stages ahead of the peloton, the Alps will be Quintana’s last stand.
“The circumstances did not favor us yesterday,” Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta said of Thursday’s stage to Plateau de Beille. “There was a lot of headwind, and Sky was very strong protecting Froome. Nairo [Quintana] is feeling better by the day, so we can take confidence from that.”
There is a mix of frustration and optimism at Movistar. There is a tinge of regret that Quintana and Valverde lost time in stage 2, when Froome, second-place Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) were among the top favorites to ride into a select group, yet there is a glimmer of hope that Quintana can deliver one fantastic ride to crack Froome and surge back into contention.
“We can only accept that time loss, and work to overcome it. It’s unfortunate, because the team is strong, and we confirmed that in the team time trial,” Arrieta continued. “Nairo [Quintana] is still intent on fighting, and that raises the morale of the entire team. The harder climbs of the Alps will present more opportunities. Let’s see what we can do.”
Perhaps among all the major rivals, Movistar is the only one that still harbors ambitions for outright victory.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is struggling at every turn while Contador, sixth at 4:04 back, has all but given up on his dream to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour in the same year. Van Garderen, who has never won a grand tour, is focusing on a more realistic goal of fighting for a podium spot.
There were no major shakeups Friday, and Quintana remained poised in third at 3:09 back, and Valverde fourth at 3:58.
Quintana, speaking after Thursday’s finale to Plateau de Beille, promised to go on the attack all the way to the final switchback up l’Alpe d’Huez on the Tour’s penultimate stage to try to shake Froome.
“We will keep fighting, and keep dreaming,” Quintana said. “There is still a lot of racing. My third week from two years ago was very good in the Alps, so let’s see if we can repeat that success. Let’s see how the body responds and if we can attack the rivals. I am moved by all the support I am receiving. Tomorrow [stage 14] I don’t think we’ll recover much time, we are expecting in the high mountains is where the team can defend itself better.”