Alejandro Valverde proved that muddled thinking can cost victory just as easily as weak legs or burning lungs.
The Caisse d?Epargne rider?s moment of panic in the rain on yesterday?s 12th stage of the Vuelta a Espana looks to have ended his hopes of overall victory.
Although the 186-kilometre journey from Burgos to Suances was always a dangerous-looking one. Two second-category climbs meant it was not a day for the favourites to switch to auto-pilot. But it should not have turned into a disaster. The job was to get through it without any drama, rest on Friday and then hit the Angliru on Saturday.
Valverde went into the day a minute behind overall leader Egoi Martinez, nestled in a group of likely winners including Levi Leipheimer, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre.
He ended it having lost 3-19 and now sits 11th overall, with a lot of ground to make up. The top five could still be on, but victory has gone now, surely.
Valverde paid for a series of dunderheaded decisions as the race climbed the final hill of the day, the Alto del Caracol, with around 50 kilometres remaining. First he went back to the team car to change his jacket, instead of asking a team-mate to get him a jacket. This meant he was towards the back of the group as the peloton tackled a tricky descent made more treacherous by the rain.
Inevitably the bunch split. Valverde was caught in the second half and a gap of 15 or 20 seconds opened quickly. That was all the encouragement Astana and Euskaltel needed to put their foot down at the front.
Valverde and his team manager?s inability to keep calm and formulate a sensible plan ended up costing him the Vuelta.
To put it bluntly, Valverde panicked. He had team-mates to call on, but instead of waiting until everyone was in position, he set off on a fruitless chase of his own.
At one stage he moved clear of the second group with French rider Sylvain Chavanel of Cofidis and Belgian Philippe Gilbert of Française des Jeux. The problem was that neither Chavanel nor Gilbert needed to get back to the front group as badly as Valverde, so he spent much of the time on the front, pedalling nowhere.
When Valverde was first dropped, with almost 50 kilometres remaining, there had been plenty of time to get organised. But Valverde?s solo bid to regain the lost ground was to prove a disaster. Chasing by himself had done more harm than good. It allowed Astana?s directeur sportif to see on television in his team car that Valverde was isolated. He could then relay this information to the team and tell them to put their backs into it at the front.
By the time the other members of the Caisse d?Epargne team caught Valverde again and started to ride, the gap was more than two minutes. Game over.
It was reminiscent of the way Valverde lost the 2006 Vuelta when Alexandre Vinokourov applied the pressure to drop the Spaniard on a descent on the run-in to Granada. The Kazakh descended like a man possessed and Valverde panicked, losing 1-39 and the race lead.
And it proved that even in the modern era of two-way radios and a television in the team car, there is no substitute for a clear-headed strategy, tactical acumen and the ability to assess the lie of the land and make a sensible decision in the heat of the moment.
Valverde had the legs to get back on, no doubt about it, he just didn’t think it through.
|TOUR OF SPAIN 2008|
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Stage 12: Bettini wins, Valverde out of contention
Stage 11: Freire wins stage
Stage 10: Hinault wins, Martinez retains lead
Stage nine: Van Avermaet takes stage, Martinez new leader
Stage eight: Moncoutie triumphs in Vuelta’s second Pyrenean stage
Stage seven: Ballan takes surprise win in mountains
Stage six: Bettini wins, Chavanel leads
Stage five: time trial win for Leipheimer
Stage four: Bennati takes crash-strewn stage
Stage three: Boonen bounces back
Stage two: Valverde powers into lead
Stage one: Liquigas are surprise winners