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Vicente Iza may not be a familiar name even to peloton aficionados, but, as of Friday afternoon, the Basque-born soigneur's face now features in two of Spanish cycling's most emblematic images of the past decade.
Nine years ago, Miguel Indurain was consoled by Iza as he cut short his 1996 Vuelta a Espa¤a campaign and with it his glorious career en route to the Lagos de Covadonga. Today, it was into the the same man's arms that Alejandro Valverde fell as he was forced to abandon the Tour 77km into today's 13th stage.
After wiping away his tears, Valverde told journalists that he had been forced into submission by the knee problems which have plagued him since the Alps. The 25-year-old Illes Balears starlet said that he was "devastated" to be leaving the Tour when he was lying fifth on general classification and wearing the white jersey denoting the Tour's best young rider.
"This is painful for me, for my team and for [Illes Balears] team-mate Paco Mancebo," Valverde admitted. "The last two or three days have been really hard for me, due to the pain my knee. It's excruciating when I have to push hard on the pedals.
"I don't want to be too negative," Valverde, nicknamed l'Imbatido or 'The Invincible' continued. "I was fifth in the Tour, had won a stage, beaten Armstrong and was in the white jersey. I have to look ahead to the future. I will come back to the Tour next year really fired up."
Valverde's knee problems began in the first week of the Tour, when he banged his knee on his handlebars during the team time trial between Tours and Blois. Illes Balears doctor Jesus Hoyos tried in vain to convince Valverde to abandon the Tour last night, only for the rider to insist that he would ride through the pain. When he climbed off today, the Murcian conceded that he "couldn't go any further".
Valverde's withdrawal comes as huge blow to Illes Balears and the other half of its leadership duo, Paco Mancebo, who lies seventh on GC, exactly four minutes down on Armstrong. In the team's hotel in Aix-en-Provence last night, team manager Jos-Miguel Echavarri spoke privately of his fears that the Spanish may react angrily to Valverde's likely withdrawal with what looked like an innocuous injury. We'll find out whether Echevarri's concerns were justified on Saturday morning.
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