Tour de France: Valverde's late thrust puts down marker to main rivals

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The Independent Online

Spain's Alejandro Valverde started the 2008 Tour de France yesterday exactly as he means to finish it – clambering up on to the winner's podium to collect the race leader's yellow jersey. For the rest of the field, Valverde's final attack on the last, 1.7km Cote de Cadoudal that concluded the opening stage was simply unmatchable.

As the bunch scattered on the uneven, twisting ascent, some 300 yards from the line, the Caisse d'Epargne rider tore out of the field for his first Tour de France stage win since 2005 at Courchevel in the Alps. That mountain-top victory had earned Valverde the honour of being named "the probable future of cycling" by the seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong – who finished just behind him.

Certainly, after the first stage of this year's Tour, Valverde seems to have the future of the race, at least in the short-term, in his hands. "It was the sort of climb which suited me perfectly," he said afterwards. "I was placed around 30th back when we started, but gradually I moved closer and closer to the front thanks to [team-mate] Jose Ivan Gutierrez guiding me up there. If I lose the lead soon, it won't be a tragedy. What matters is finishing in yellow in Paris."

Even without his bold declarations, Valverde's performance in yesterday's stage could hardly have been clearer. Initially an outsider, sixth place last year – the only Tour he has finished – meant the Murcia pro was not rated one of the main challengers at the start of the year.

But that all changed when Valverde won the Dauphiné Libéré, the last warm-up stage race in France, in June. As chance would have it, Valverde started the Dauphiné by taking an uphill victory on the opening road stage at Privas, which was very similar, terrain-wise, to yesterday's finale. Overall victory in the Tour would seem well within his potential.

Valverde's re-emergence on the international scene will almost certainly cause some raking over the ashes of the fading scandal surrounding Operacion Puerto, an anti-doping investigation dating from 2006.

Valverde was never formally implicated, but there were allegations of possible links between the Spaniard and Puerto. No clear proof has ever emerged and Valverde has always asserted his innocence, and with the Spanish judge in charge of the case declaring that the evidence cannot be used to ban athletes, the allegations look like they will never be resolved one way or the other. All that remains is the whiff of suspicion.

"I have nothing to say about that," Valverde said when the subject of Puerto came up yesterday. It was probably the one sour moment of a day in which he took his first lead in a major Tour since 2006.

Yesterday's stage past leafy Breton hedgerows and rich pastureland was highly reminiscent of the Tour's visit to southern England last year. But if the French crowds were enthusiastic enough, they were not as numerous as the 1.5 million fans who had lined the road last year when the Tour wended its way from London to Canterbury.

But Britanny, which the Tour will leave tomorrow, is not the French heartland of cycling for nothing. In yesterday's 197.5km trek through the rolling Morbihan region, village after village was decked out to the nines, with church towers and lines of hay bales on dangerous corners. The slightly surreal elements of fan worship that give the Tour its own special character were not lacking. At Saint Jean Brévelay, a giant model rabbit adorned with yellow jerseys squatted in the middle of a roundabout; further on a clown cheered the riders.

Steeped in cycling tradition, some of the sport's earliest races were held in Britanny in the 1860s. On top of that, the five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault hails from Saint-Brieuc, where the stage finishes today; Saturday's finish village of Plumelec has its own annual cycling Grand Prix; and no less than six Bretons are taking part in the race this year. It was almost compulsory that one of them, Lilian Jégou of the Française des Jeux squad, should form part of a day-long breakaway which was only reeled in with seven kilometres left to go. Among those dodging down the lanes in hot pursuit of the eight-man breakaway was a first-year British professional, Chris Froome, who was born in Kenya but who took British nationality just before his Tour debut yesterday.

Froome – whose grandparents live in Tetbury – confessed that the hills around Nairobi, where he started riding a BMX bike, were much more to his liking than the twisting, narrow ascents and fast descents of the Breton countryside.

Speaking before the start Froome said: "I'm actually more worried about these first three stages through the flatter terrain than I am of the mountains. It'll be good to get them over with." His words proved prophetic after his team leader, the 2007 King of the Mountains, Juan Mauricio Soler, took a tumble close to the finish.

The Colombian – who was so shell-shocked he almost rode into some barriers shortly afterwards – finished three minutes down and with a possible fracture in his left arm. Froome, who had waited for his leader, lost four minutes. It was an inauspicious start but as a Tour rookie Froome's aim is essentially survival. Valverde, on the other hand, is shooting rather higher – so far for the Spaniard, so very good.

Watch today's second stage, a 164.5km leg from Auray to Saint-Brieuc on ITV4 from 7pm to 8pm.