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Lance Armstrong tonight declared that Alejandro Valverde could be the "future of cycling" after the Illes Balears rider pipped the American to victory in the first mountain stage of the Tour to Courchevel.
Valverde himself seemed too overwhelmed and, like Armstrong, perhaps surprised by his performance to hazard any guesses as to his potential in this or future Tours de France. The 25-year-old Murcian claimed tonight that his focus was on supporting team-mate and fellow Illes Balears hero Francisco Mancebo in his bid for a podium finish in Paris. "Mancebo is still our undisputed leader," said Valverde, whose victory today lifted him to fifth place on general classification, 3-16 behind new race leader Armstrong. "I'm just here to help Paco. Beating Armstrong isn't going to be easy, because it seems very much like he's better than ever."
Valverde went on to describe his first stage victory, obtained at the end of a 22km climb whose length and difficulty most had thought likely to expose the young Spaniard's limitations in the mountains. Earlier Armstrong had described how, as Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel dictated the names of the riders who were losing touch over race radio, he had expected Valverde to be among them. Valverde, a bronze medallist in the 2003 world championships in Hamilton, went on to catch Armstrong napping for a second time as he stole victory on the line after the American had lead into the final 300 metres.
"As soon as the four of us broke clear, Lance said that we should work together to gain as much time on the others as possible," Valverde explained. "We climbed at a furious pace until Rasmussen started to wind up the sprint with 400 metres to go. Then Lance attacked very hard and very fast. Fortunately, I was able to get onto his wheel but I was ready to let go at any moment. Only the emotion of the moment allowed me to hold on and come round him on the line."
Rasmussen, meanwhile, described how he was "living a dream" at the Tour de France. Third in today's stage, the emphatic leader of the king of the mountains competition and, most significantly, now second on general classification 38 seconds behind Lance Armstrong, the Dane could also be forgiven for pinching himself. Rasmussen, though, proved today that he is quickly gaining confidence.
"The general classification now becomes a priority for me," said the Rabobank star. "Today went even better than expected and now I'm looking forward to Wednesday and some more classic climbs. From now on, I'll concentrate on following Lance and trying to consolidate my position on GC or even move up."
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