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Tour de France

Valverde rising: Is Movistar backing the wrong horse?

Nairo Quintana has yet to make a race-changing move in this Tour, which leaves some wondering if he has the legs to do so.

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BERN, Switzerland (VN) — Everyone is waiting for Nairo Quintana to attack in this Tour de France, but more than a few observers think it’s his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde who looks stronger.

Sky’s Nicolas Portal said as much the other day, as well as another GC rider, who added, “Valverde looks better on the bike than Quintana does.” Is Movistar backing the wrong horse? The team says no, and insists it’s sticking to its plan to ride for Quintana all the way to Paris.

“Valverde is very strong after the Giro d’Italia, it’s true, but Nairo is our captain for this Tour,” Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué said. “Alejandro is a phenomenon, a rider with big capacity, and if there is an opportunity, he has the freedom to take it. Our tactic remains to support Nairo until Paris.”

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Quintana started Monday’s 16th stage in fourth at 2:59 behind race leader Chris Froome of, with Valverde right behind him in fifth at 3:17 back.

Quintana has twice finished second to Froome (in 2013 and 2015), and entered this year’s Tour confident he could take on the Sky captain. But so far through the race, it’s been Froome and Sky who have controlled the race. Following Froome’s big gains in last Friday’s time trial, the yellow jersey can pedal into the Alps with a comfortable lead, 1:47 ahead of Trek – Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema.

Valverde rode to third overall and a stage victory at the Giro d’Italia in May, and was confirmed Monday as part of Spain’s five-man Olympic team for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He started this Tour committed to Quintana, and he says that hasn’t changed.

“I’ve come here to help Nairo. I’m not riding for the podium, or anything else,” Valverde insisted again Sunday. “The sensations are good, it’s true, but I have no pressure here, other than to help Nairo.”

Last summer, Valverde realized a career-long quest to reach the Tour de France podium with third, one step below Quintana. After reaching the Giro podium with third in May in his first start at the Italian grand tour (giving him podiums in all three grand tours, including an overall at the Vuelta a España), Valverde came into this Tour without major pressure to ride for results.

The goal is to ride into form for Rio and help Quintana when and where he can. So far, the race has largely been blocked by Sky’s dominance, and Valverde still finds himself within podium range as if almost by accident.

With Quintana yet to lift his head, should the team give Valverde more freedom, perhaps in a long-distance attack to knock Sky off-balance?

“Nairo is feeling good, and will attack when it’s the right moment,” Unzué insisted. “Alejandro can have freedom to move, and we can use his position on GC to our advantage, because the others cannot let him ride away. Nairo is our captain.”

Despite the expectation of losing time early, Valverde’s been steadily following wheels and positioning himself to help Quintana. Movistar tried something Sunday, with Valverde taking a short sortie with the idea to have Quintana counter behind him, but Sky quickly smothered the move.

Valverde said he’s ready to follow team orders and feels he has the legs to deliver.

“I have no pressure here at all to go for the podium,” Valverde said. “I am trying to enjoy the race within the circumstances that we have. I do feel good, and I am not as tired as I thought I would be from the Giro.”