Tour de France: Valverde off to the perfect start

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The Independent Online

On Saturday, for the first time in over 40 years, the Tour de France eliminated the usual opening prologue. The race favourite, Alejandro Valverde, was quick to take advantage of the uphill finish at Plumelec that substituted for the traditional time trial.

Valverde, in the red and yellow-flecked jersey that denotes the Spanish national champion, blazed out of the pack some 300 metres from the line, on the way to an utterly convincing victory. The time difference taken by the 28-year-old Caisse D'Epargne rider was minimal: just one second over the closest chasing group of 13. But striking such an early blow is an almost unprecedented tactic for a Tour favourite and the psychological impact on his rivals could be telling.

"I wasn't sending a message to the other contenders," Valverde said. "It was a finish that suited me down to the ground. I got taken up by my team-mates through the bunch as it shattered on the climb. I'd calculated my attack well. And I attacked."

Valverde has twice won the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a hilly one-day Classic, and Saturday's grinding 1.7km final climb deep in Brittany's Morbihan region was highly reminiscent of the Ardennes. Now the Span-iard's attention has turned to the Tour. Injuries have twice forced him to abandon, although last year he took sixth place in Paris.

Victory this June in the Dauphiné Libéré, featuring four tough Alpine stages, confirmed Valverde's talent for the high mountains. If there is a chink in his armour, it has more to do with unproven links with an anti-doping investigation from 2006 than his capacity to challenge for the yellow jersey.

Valverde is the 11th Spaniard to lead cycling's biggest race, but his late acceleration could, indirectly, help David Millar move into yellow. The Briton was on the right side of the split caused by Valverde's attack, gaining him a six-second advantage on the other top time-trialists. Millar has targeted Tuesday's race time trial in Cholet as a possible springboard into the lead.

The result from Saturday's uphill finish will have done no harm whatsoever to his morale.

"It was a great day for Dave," said the sports director in Millar's Garmin-Chipotle team, Johnny Weltz. "Turning that result into a yellow jersey may be another story, but he could hardly have had a better Tour start."

Nor, for that matter, could Valverde.

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