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The fact that Roberto Heras, Joseba Beloki, Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia all performed pretty dismally on yesterday's stage to Courchevel has provoked barely a ripple of criticism among Spain's cycling press. Only one story mattered, and - with occasional apologies to Francisco Mancebo - that was Alejandro Valverde's victory over Lance Armstrong and the rest of the Tour field on the race's first day in the high mountains.
Nicknamed 'Balaverde' (green bullet) from his highly successful days in CV-Kelme's green kit, the 25 year old from Murcia has been the biggest hope in Spanish cycling since he burst onto the scene in 2003 by finishing third in the Vuelta and then taking the silver medal in the world road race in Canada.
Although Valverde's run of success that has seen him win on mountain summits as easily as in bunch sprints did not carry him quite to the same level last year, his last with Kelme, he was still able to name a big price from Illes Balears when he moved at the end of the season. While Liberty's Manolo Saiz and many others reckoned that Valverde was a rider for the Classics and week-long stage races, Balears' team manager Eusebio Unzue felt that the Tour's longer but less steep climbs might suit his powerful team leader more than those at the Vuelta, where he was a slightly disappointing fourth last year.
Yesterday's victory was already his 30th pro win, and it had the Spanish press in ecstasy. Writing in AS, Alfredo Rela¤o wondered before the race whether Valverde was "a Tour man, that is to say, a rider capable of contending. The high mountains will tell us that".
This morning Rela¤o believes he has his answer. "The high mountains have said yes. Armstrong's first major attack scattered several of the favourites, but not Valverde, who took a colossal victory, resisting the rhythm set by Armstrong's team initially, then by Armstrong himself, and saving the strength to beat the insatiable American for the stage."
His colleague Chema Bermejo was no less effusive, writing: "The Tour is a race apart. There are great riders who choke there (Heras is a good example) and others who seem totally at home. Yesterday Valverde started to convince those waverers (myself included) who saw him as a new Jalabert, but he is much more, and it now seems right for him not to be happy in the Classics but to dream of the Tour and the Vuelta."
El Pais pointed out that just a few kilometres away from Les Arcs, where Miguel Indurain's hopes of a sixth Tour win were dashed by Bjarne Riis, former Banesto manager Unzue had unearthed another rider capable of delivering his team the greatest prize in the sport.
As for the rider himself, he now hopes to be able to continue to challenge Armstrong. He explained how Unzue had told him via his earpiece to help Armstrong with the pace-making on the final climb, but to keep his periods on the front of the group short so that he had something left for the finish. After winning, he said that Armstrong had congratulated him and thanked him for his cooperation on the final climb.
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