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BAGNERES de LUCHON, France (VN) — There was blood in the water on the Port de Balés climb. It wasn’t Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), nicknamed the “Shark,” stirring the choppy seas on the relentlessly steep escarpment in the Tour’s first Pyrénéan day. Instead, it was Movistar, who came blazing out of the final Tour de France rest day, ready to ravage the peloton.
Movistar pinned three riders on the front during the narrow, steep, unforgiving climb, and managed to isolate Nibali, leaving the yellow jersey exposed for the first time this Tour.
Yet it wasn’t Nibali who Movistar was targeting. Instead, it was riders behind Movistar captain Alejandro Valverde on GC, and one in particular: Tejay van Garderen.
The BMC Racing captain was a direct threat to Valverde’s shot at a career-first podium, and when van Garderen drifted to the back of the elite group of riders red-lining it in the GC selection, Movistar turned the screws even tighter. When the bleeding stopped at the finish line, the damage was done. Van Garderen’s podium hopes lay in tatters, and Valverde’s enjoyed a huge boost.
“Movistar just made an insane tempo,” van Garderen told journalists at the BMC bus. “It was just too hard.”
Valverde remained second at 4:37 to the ever-steady Nibali, but van Garderen plummeted to sixth, now 9:25 back of Nibali, and 4:48 to the Spanish veteran.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” van Garderen continued. “I had hopes for a podium, and now it looks like it’s taken a big hit.”
Cycling is a cruel sport. One team’s celebration invariably means another’s disappointment.
While there was a bit of doom and gloom around the BMC bus after the stage, there was a quiet sense of jubilation at Movistar.
Many of the riders’ families made the trek over the Pyrénées to watch the stage, and a loud gaggle of Spanish wives, children, and parents crowded around the bus.
“We have to be satisfied with how the stage went,” Valverde said. “Nibali is solid, but we were able to distance van Garderen, who was the most dangerous rider for the time trial [Saturday]. It makes things more comfortable for the podium.”
Just 24 hours before, van Garderen was quietly confident that he would have the legs to stay close to the pointy end of the GC. Movistar, however, was intent on making things difficult. The accelerations also gapped Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who dropped from third to fifth, now 6:40 back.
John Gadret, the French rider on Movistar, sought some shade in the front seat of a team van, waiting for the police escort to cross the border, to spend the night in Spain in nearby Vielha.
“The idea today was to eliminate some of the podium rivals. Nibali was strong once again,” Gadret told VeloNews. “Van Garderen was very dangerous for Alejandro. Now we are more secure to try to reach the podium in Paris.”
While the Spanish entourage was looking forward to a night in Spain before crossing back into France for Wednesday’s stage, BMC Racing was trying to figure out what happened.
“He certainly wasn’t the Tejay we’ve seen in the first two weeks of the Tour,” BMC Racing general manager Jim Ochowicz told reporters. “He just had a bad day. We didn’t expect that to happen. We hope he can come back tomorrow, and the others can lose time.”
The Pyrénées clearly have not treated van Garderen well. Last year, in the first major climbing stage of the 2013 Tour, van Garderen lost more than 12 minutes on the stage to Ax-3 Domaines.
Van Garderen’s podium hopes are further complicated by the presence of three French riders ahead of him on GC. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), who has been consistent across the Tour, climbed to third at 5:06 back. Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) climbed to fourth, at 6:08. Bardet is now fifth, at 6:40 back. All three are nearly three minutes ahead of van Garderen.
“I just didn’t have the legs. I felt a bit empty,” van Garderen explained. “I am really hoping I can bounce back tomorrow and recover the legs I had in the Alps. It’s not finished. There are still three hard GC days to come, so I’m hoping I can bounce back.”
Even with the penultimate-day time trial waiting Saturday, a solid time trialist like van Garderen cannot realistically hope to take that much time back against the likes of Valverde and Péraud.
As this Tour has shown, seemingly every rider has at least one bad day. Pinto and Péraud have been solid up until now. If van Garderen can bounce back, he will need to attack the French riders if he hopes to revive his podium ambitions.
Valverde, meanwhile, solidified his grip on a podium spot. Wednesday will reveal if Movistar is racing to win the Tour, or be content with a podium in Paris.