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Tour de France

Spanish armada ready for mountain assault as Tour hits the Pyrenees

Valverde and Contador are poised to make a move this weekend in the Tour's first mountain test

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MONTPELLIER, France (VN) — Off the radar. That’s just where Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) wants to be.

Ahead of Friday’s start, Valverde sat on the steps of the Movistar team bus. No media, no fans. Just a quiet moment with his wife and son.

“Todo tranquilo,” Valverde told VeloNews. “I got through the first week in good shape. No crashes, no setbacks. Today will be another complicated stage. Then we’ll see about the first touch with the mountains.”

Movistar is quietly confident Valverde can make a run for the final podium. Last year, Valverde crashed and had a horrible start to the Tour in his return to racing following his two-year ban associated with the Operación Puerto doping scandal.

This year, Valverde returns with even more confidence, but surprisingly a lower profile.

All Spanish eyes are on Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), which is just fine for Valverde and his Movistar teammates.

Everyone is looking to the final week in the Alps, with giants such as Ventoux and l’Alpe d’Huez looming on the horizon like executioners.

That means the Pyrénées are being somewhat overlooked.

Two stages with six major rated climbs will reveal a lot, however. The winner certainly will not be crowned this weekend, but the field of favorites will all but surely be whittled down to a select few.

Movistar’s tactics are to stay close to pre-race favorite Chris Froome (Sky), and not lose time. But the allure of racing close to Spanish fans, which typically pour over the border to line the roads, will give the Spanish armada wings.

Valverde said this weekend will help everyone find their place in the pecking order.

“The first mountain stage is always interesting. Everyone sees where they are compared to the others,” he said. “The second stage is interesting, perhaps more dangerous still.”

Saturday’s eighth stage to the Cat. 1 Ax-3-Domaines summit tackles the hors-categorie Pailhères climb en route. The attacks will come, but many expect a select group of riders to hit the final climb together.

As Valverde suggested, Sunday’s 168.5km ninth stage is perhaps even more difficult. The climbs come fast and hard, with a second category climb right off the bat. That’s quickly followed by a string of four first category climbs as the stage moves west across the Pyrénées.

The finish line is 30km after the final climb, but Movistar believes anyone gaining serious time over La Hourquette d’Ancizan could be gone. The pack will be busted into small pieces, and it will be every man for himself.

While Valverde has had a smooth ride, Nairo Quintana and Rui Costa both touched pavement Thursday.

That was also the case for Basque rider Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Leopard) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).

Like the other Spanish riders, Rodríguez is keeping his cool, trying to avoid trouble and disaster in the Tour’s first week. Katusha didn’t have the best team time trial, but the team still believes that Rodríguez can challenge for the podium.

“We will not know where everyone stands until the Pyrénées,” said Katusha sport director Valerio Piva. “The Tour will be decided in the Alps, but the first mountains always put things in order. Purito has worked hard to be ready. We can only wait to see.”

All eyes will be on Contador and his quest to “reclaim” the Tour’s yellow jersey.

Contador has bet everything on the Tour this year. After skirting disaster with a fall in stage 1, Contador has made it through the rest of the week in good condition.

A strong ride in the team time trial, just six seconds slower than Sky, reveals how strong and motivated the team is to back Contador’s run to challenge Froome and Sky.

“The first days are always filled with tension. I had a spill, but luckily I was not seriously injured,” Contador said. “The first week is behind us. Now we enter the mountains, and we will see how things are. I still believe the Tour will be decided in the final week, and that’s when I am hoping to be at my best. The Pyrénées will still be hard, without a doubt. Everyone must be ready.”

Behind the scenes, the buzz is that the Spanish riders, and everyone else, will be watching Froome. If he’s solid, there likely will not be any risky attacks, because the price will be paid later.

If Froome and Sky falter, however, the Spanish will be ready to turn the screws. Everyone knows that any opportunity to take time cannot be wasted.

One Movistar source said they expect Contador to attack. And perhaps the same goes for Movistar as well.

If they wait too long, Froome will be taking more gains in time trials, and Sky will be racing to protect a lead going into the Alps.

If someone can take some time now, it would force Sky into the position of having to race to attack a rival. Of course, that is easier said than done.

“Every day is difficult in the Tour,” Valverde said. “If you have a chance to take time, you’d be a fool not to. Froome looks strong, but no one knows until we all arrive to the mountains. Vamos a ver.”

Everyone will see just how strong Froome is. And the Spanish promise to be the ones putting him to the test.

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