LE LAC DE VASSIVIÈRE, France (VN) — Bradley Wiggins (Sky) called the 2012 Paris-Nice a three-horse race after Monday’s wind-swept stage that blew apart the peloton.
Wiggins, who defended his yellow jersey in Tuesday’s hilly third stage into the Haute-Vienne, named Levi Leipheimer (Omega Lotto-Quick Step) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) as his most dangerous rivals.
One name the Brit seemed to have overlooked was Alejandro Valverde. The Movistar captain dashed to his fourth win of the year Tuesday up a short, but steep third-category climb against Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) — just the kind of finish that Valverde used to win with ease.
With a 10-second time bonus, Valverde trimmed the difference to Wiggins to just 20 seconds. With the climbing stage to Mende on tap Friday and the uphill time trial on Col d’Eze to decide everything on Sunday, Valverde is a major threat for the GC.
“To beat Wiggins will be difficult, but we’re going to try,” said Valverde, who climbed into sixth overall. “Yesterday was very important to make the front group and today was important to win the stage. Step-by-step, now we can see if we can win in Nice.”
Back from his controversial doping ban for links to the Operación Puerto scandal dating back to 2006, Valverde seems to be right back at his former level.
Valverde won in his first race back, taking a stage up Old Willunga Hill in a duel against Gerrans at the Tour Down Under. He claimed his first GC win after taking a stage and the overall at the Ruta del Sol last month.
The Spanish rider said his win Tuesday is the most important so far.
“To win at a race as prestigious as Paris-Nice means a lot,” Valverde said. “This is the most important race since I came back from my stop and to win here is significant.”
When asked by VeloNews.com if his string of victories in the opening weeks of his comeback was a surprise, Valverde said no.
“It’s a surprise, but also not a surprise,” he said. “I won the last race before I was forced to stop (the 2010 Tour de Romandie) and I won again in the first race when I came back. There are no secrets. I did my work during my ban. I stayed fit. Now we’ll see what happens in the coming months.”
When Valverde speaks of his “stop,” he is, of course, referring to his two-year racing ban handed down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after Italian officials linked blood samples taken during the 2008 Tour de France to blood bags found as part of the Puerto raids in 2006.
A long legal battle ended in 2010, with Valverde banned for the 2010-11 seasons.
Valverde has never publicly fully explained how those blood samples might have found their way into the offices of Puerto ring-leader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, saying simply: “I served my ban and it’s over now. I only want to look forward and race my bike.”
He did admit that he is relieved the whole business is behind him.
“It’s a tremendous weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I was winning before (during the period he was fighting the doping allegations), but I couldn’t fully enjoy the bike. Now I am back and I am winning again just like before and I can take more satisfaction for the these victories.”
The big question remains whether Valverde can win again in the most important races of the season. When he came back in January, he said he knew he was fit, but he said he lacked the sensations of battling for the win at the end of a race.
His victories so far have come on relatively shorter courses than what he will face in the Ardennes classics, his first major goals of the 2012 season.
“I will race Catalunya then the Ardennes. I’d like to win any one of those,” he said. “I know the fitness is good and winning these early races is good for the morale. I know the Ardennes are that much harder, especially Amstel and Liège, with the longer distances. We’ll keep working in the coming weeks to make sure I have the depth to go the distance.”
The Tour de France, the Olympic Games and the world championships, set for a hilly, classics-style course in Valkenburg, Netherlands, all remain ahead of Valverde in what’s a very ambitious season.
“We want to set high goals,” he said. “The Tour is always difficult. We go with the idea of winning a stage and maybe more. The Olympics and worlds are also important. It’s a big year for me.”
Right now, Valverde knows he’s in with a shot to win Paris-Nice, and just like he did in the first weeks of his comeback season, Valverde has delivered one surprise after another.
Ceding 30 seconds to Wiggins in Sunday’s 9.4km time trial doesn’t worry Valverde, especially with time bonuses at the finish line in Mende.
“I lost 30 seconds against the specialists like Wiggins and Leipheimer. Against riders of my characteristics, I did pretty well,” he said. “Now there is more terrain ahead of us more to my liking. We’re in the fight and we’re going to take it to them all the way to Nice.”