By Agence France Presse
Spanish sensation Alejandro Valverde confirmed his recent promise as a future Tour de France contender with a well-deserved victory on the 10th stage of the race Tuesday in Courchevel.
Valverde (Illes Balears) held off champion Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) in a two-man race for the line of the summit finish last graced by the wheels of the late champion Marco Pantani, who won here in 2000, the last time the alpine ski station featured as a summit finish on the Tour.
Valverde has been hailed as possibly the next Spanish winner of the world’s toughest race. In his native country – where the legacy of five-time winner Miguel Indurain still looms large – they are still waiting.
However, the 25-year-old from Murcia, who also pulled on the white jersey for the best rider age 25 or under, will now turn his attention to working for team leader Francisco Mancebo, who finished fourth at nine seconds behind. “Today was a great day for me, with the stage victory and Mancebo and me moving up the general classification. I had a dream of winning a stage at the Tour, and now I’ve achieved it,” said Valverde, who is now fifth overall in the race at 3:16 behind Armstrong.
“I can’t find the words to describe what I’m feeling. Winning here is very important for me. It’s one of the most significant events of my career. But now I want to work for the team. There’s no question that Mancebo is our team leader. He’s going very strong.”
Mancebo, who won the Tour’s white jersey a few years ago, is in seventh position at 4:00 and could now possibly aim for a podium finish. However, Valverde knows there’s only one man to beat on this year’s race – Armstrong.
“Armstrong is just as strong as he has been in previous years,” said Valverde. “Already on the last climb we were going very fast, then when Armstrong attacked the pace was really fast. He was saying he wanted us to maximize the lead. Me and Mancebo just tried to give everything we could. I tried to hang on until the end.”
Valverde played his cards perfectly. Despite the threat of Armstrong going off on his own in the final 2km, the Spaniard hung on until the American made what proved to be the decisive move, seized his wheel – then dug still deeper to overtake the American in the final 50 meters.
“It was very hard. (Michael) Rasmussen went first, so I took his wheel. Then Armstrong attacked and I took his wheel – but I was struggling to hang on. It was only the idea of winning the stage that pushed me to keep pedaling.”
Six-time winner Armstrong himself admitted that Valverde had surprised him with his pace. “When I heard the names that were getting dropped (on the last climb) and Valverde was still there – it was impressive,” said Armstrong. “Then I made one acceleration, and turned round and he was still there. A guy like him could be the future of cycling. He’s a complete rider, a patient rider and smart. He’s always been good. He’s been good from the day he showed up, and he’s proving that here.
“The only criticism I would have is, for the Tour, his time trialing, which he maybe has to work on. But he’ll do that.”