By Andrew Hood
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) locked up the most important stage-race victory of his already-prolific career Sunday with the 60th Dauphiné Libéré crown and pushed his name to the top of the list of Tour de France favorites.
Despite the three-climb, 128km route across Massif de la Chartreuse above Grenoble in Sunday’s finale, Valverde’s Caisse d’Epargne teammates controlled the action to secure the 37-second victory over last year’s Tour runner-up, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto).
A breakaway pulled clear to win the stage, with Dmitriy Fofonov (Crédit Agricole) taking the honors, while Valverde zipped across the line 24th with a group at 2:21 back.
“This is the most important victory of my career, both in terms of prestige and the fact that it comes ahead of the Tour,” said Valverde. “Both mentally and physically, this is a very satisfying victory. Now we go for the Tour to do the best we can, with aspirations to finish on the podium or maybe even win.”
Spain’s “Balaverde,” or Green Bullet, came to the Dauphiné to test his form and ended up winning two stages and fending off attacks from proven Tour contenders Evans and Levi Leipheimer (Astana), who slotted into third overall at 1:24 back.
Valverde proved he had some time-trial chops with a surprising victory in Wednesday’s hilly 31km course to claim the leader’s jersey.
After that, he was free to ride in defensive mode much like Spain’s five-time winner Miguel Indurain, rather than in the attacking style typically associated with the explosive, yet inconsistent Valverde.
Valverde admitted that he probably won’t be winning a la Indurain come July if he’s in the hunt for the yellow jersey.
“I’d love the Tour to be like this, but the time trials at the Tour are something else,” he said. “My time trial was phenomenal and from that point I only had to withstand the attacks in the mountains. The legs were good from the prologue and after I had the jersey, we rode to win the race.”
Evans, Leipheimer podium
Evans, meanwhile, sent teammate Yaroslav Popovych up the road Sunday on the day’s first climb to test Valverde’s resilience in one last gasp for overall victory.
With Valverde revealing no chinks in his armor, the Aussie rolled in with the main pack to take second for the second year in a row and move into the ProTour leader’s jersey.
“I came to this Dauphiné to test my form and see how my other rivals are doing. I can be satisfied because I came close to winning the race,” Evans said. “I have some margin for improvement before the Tour. I tried to attack Valverde, but he and his team were strong. We’ll see how things unfold in the Tour.”
For the first time since 2002, Leipheimer won’t be heading to the Tour because of the controversial decision by race officials to exclude his Astana team.
With less than a week’s rest after coming off 18th at the Giro d’Italia, Leipheimer won the opening prologue and was second by 19 seconds to Valverde in the decisive time trial to slot into second overall at 23 seconds back.
The U.S. national champ struggled on the Joux-Plane, however, in Friday’s fifth stage after attacks from Valverde and then Evans, and slipped to third overall after losing 1:06.
Leipheimer was back in fighting form up the Dauphiné’s lone summit finish at La Toussuire on Saturday and joined up with nemesis Evans to isolate Valverde with about 4km to go. But Valverde clawed his way back and dodged the bullet to carry the race leader’s jersey into Sunday’s finale.
Leipheimer will head to the United States and prepare for a run at the Olympic gold medal in Beijing, his next major goal for the 2008 season.
“I’m heading back to the U.S. to get ready for the Olympics. I’ll take it day by day. We’re not expecting anything to change (about the Tour). It certainly wouldn’t be ideal to try to race the Tour after the schedule we’ve had,” Leipheimer said.
“I’m sure when the Tour’s on, it’s going to hurt. I’m just going to try to focus on riding my bike and doing something different. It’s the first time in eight years that I will be home for the Fourth of July. Maybe I will have a barbecue and watch some fireworks.”
A break went just 15km into the 128km stage from Saint-Jean-de Maurienne to Grenoble, including Fofonov, Stephane Auge (Cofidis), Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale), Sebastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Fondital), Yuri Trofimov (Bouygues Telecom) and Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick Step).
Gravity and a brisk pace trimmed the lead group to Trofimov, Fofonov, Riblon, Van De Walle and Righi, with a counterattack that included Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), Matteo Carrera (Quick Step), mountains leader Pierre Rolland (Crédit Agricole) and Charley Wegelius (Liquigas) clearing the Col du Granie some three minutes behind. The peloton containing race leader Valverde, Evans and Leipheimer was a further minute behind.
With 35km to race, on the lower slopes of the Col du Cucheron, the leaders were two minutes ahead of the pursuit and 4:20 in front of the Valverde group. Riders began trying to flee the peloton in ones and twos, with a trio of Euskaltel-Euskadis — Ruben Perez, Mikel Astarloza and Samuel Sanchez — all having digs out of the bunch. But Valverde, bracketed by teammates, was unruffled, as his rivals appeared content with their respective spots on general classification.
Up front, Trofimov had a go on the Col du Porte, testing his breakaway mates. Then Riblon took a shot only to be shut down by Fofonov, who made his own little jump a few moments later. The little digs appeared to be wearing down Van De Walle, who was parked at the back of the break. They also helped the four-man pursuit close to within two minutes.
At last, Trofimov got a gap — and it was Van De Walle leaping around the others to chase, followed by Fofonov. The Crédit Agricole quickly caught Van De Walle, but Trofimov was well away.
Behind, Carrera attacked out of the first chase, while back in the peloton Ag2r-La Mondiale lent two riders to the pursuit, though the team had Riblon up the road; Trofimov’s advantage was putting Cyril Deseel’s sixth place overall in jeopardy.
Trofimov’s advantage over his breakaway mates, meanwhile, disappeared on the descent — Van De Walle and Fofonov reeled him in with 11km to race to the finish in Grenoble.
Drive it home
In the bunch, meanwhile, everyone was still playing defense: Euskaltel was ripping the descent, intent on preserving their respective positions on GC (Haimar Zubeldia fifth at 3:19 with Astarloza seventh at 4:25).
The leading trio carried an insurmountable gap of three minutes into the final kilometers, with Fofonov drilling it and Van de Walle sitting on.
One kilometer from the line Fofonov and Trofimov were trading pulls with the Belgian still parked at the back. Fofonov jumped first on the right-hand side of the finishing straight — and held it to the line. Van de Walle took second with Trofimov third.
“I went into the break to defend Rolland’s lead in the King of the Mountain’s jersey,” said Fofonov. “I let Trofimov go because I knew we could catch him on the downhill. I was not afraid of either of them in the finale, because I knew I had great legs.
“It was a good week for the team. We had two good days with Thor (Hushovd) and we had three second places. We keep hearing some rumors about a new sponsor. (Team manager Roger) Legeay told us to do our job and he’ll do his, just keep up the sporting spirit. We showed that this week.”
Dauphiné Libéré: Stage 7
1. Dmitriy Fofonov (Kaz, Crédit Agricole, 127km in 3:17:21 (38.615 km/h)
2. Jurgen Van de Walle (B), Quick Step, same time
3. Yury Trofimov (Rus), Bouygues Telecom, s.t.
4. Christophe Riblon (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 0:11
5. Matteo Carrara (I), Quick Step, s.t.
6. Daniele Righi (I), Lampre-Fondital, s.t.
7. Sandy Casar (F), Française des Jeux, at 1:31
8. Charles Wegelius (GB), Liquigas, s.t.
9. Pierre Rolland (F), Crédit Agricole, at 1:34
10. Lars Bak (Dec), Team CSC, at 2:21
11. Maxime Monfort (B), Cofidis, at 2:21
12. Simon Gerrans (Aus), Crédit Agricole, s.t.
13. Thomas Voeckler (F), Bouygues Telecom, s.t.
14. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, s.t.
15. George Hincapie (USA), Team High Road, s.t.
16. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, s.t.
17. Manuel Beltran (Sp), Liquigas, s.t.
18. Hubert Dupont (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, s.t.
19. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, s.t.
20. David Lopez (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, s.t.
1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, 27:34:39
2. Cadel Evans (Aus), Silence-Lotto, 0:39
3. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Astana, at 1:24
4. Robert Gesink (Ned), Rabobank, at 2:47
5. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 3:19
6. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r-La Mondiale, at 4:01
7. Mikel Astarloza (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 4:25
8. Sylvester Szmyd (Pol), Lampre-Fondital, at 4:29
9. Maxime Monfort (B), Cofidis, at 4:45
10. Matteo Carrara (I), Quick Step, at 5:13
11. Michael Rogers (Aus), Team High Road, at 5:33
12. Yuri Trofimov (Rus), Bouygues Telecom, at 5:59
13. Sandy Casar (F), Française des Jeux, at 6:04
14. Daniel Navarro (Sp), Astana, at 6:46
15. Manuel Beltran (Sp), Liquigas, at 6:47
16. Rémy Di Grégorio (F), Française des Jeux, at 7:34
17. Rémy Pauriol (F), Crédit Agricole, at 9:06
18. Lars Bak (Den), Team CSC, at 10:31
19. Dmitriy Fofonov (Kaz), Crédit Agricole, at 11:3
20. Carlos Sastre (Sp), Team CSC, at 12:20