Alejandro Valverde is like a good Spanish wine; he just keeps getting better with age. And the 2017 season looks to be a vintage year.
On Sunday, Spain’s “Balaverde” reached a career milestone of 100 victories after he pipped arch-rival Alberto Contador (Trek – Segafredo) by just one second to win the Ruta del Sol (also for a record fifth time).
“It’s obviously a special win,” Valverde said. “Not only due to its significance, but how it unfolded, against the rivals, and how hard the team worked.”
And those wins reflect one of the peloton’s most versatile riders. Neither a pure sprinter nor a pure climber, Valverde gets the most out of his engine, winning such diverse races as the Vuelta a España, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the Spanish time trial championship.
“Someone said only Boonen, Greipel, and Cavendish are the only active riders with more than 100 wins. That’s good company,” Valverde said. “They’re amazing riders, but they get most of their wins in sprints, so for me to be part of that group is even more special because I am a different kind of rider. I can be proud of that.”
No doubt about it, the ageless Valverde clearly loves his trade. The son of a truck driver and amateur racer, Valverde won so many races as a junior and U23 rider he earned the nickname “el imbatido,” the unbeaten one. And he hasn’t stopped since.
Just days after winning on home roads at the Vuelta a Murcia to open 2017 — check this link to see his 70kph bunny-hop — Valverde out-kicked a six-up sprint after attacking in the mountains. Valverde’s early season panache reveals much about the veteran Spaniard, and how he is approaching the swansong years of his prolific and controversial career.
At 36 (he turns 37 in April), Valverde, shows no sign of slowing down, so much so that Movistar has already penned him through 2019 when he will be 39.
What’s his secret? Those close to him insist it’s an unbridled passion for racing and devotion to the bike.
“Valverde is exemplary,” said former pro and Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “He is one of the few riders who can race at a high level from February to October. He simply loves training, living as a pro, but more than anything, he loves racing his bike.”
Valverde has taken a few lessons to heart over the past decade, and now races much more conservatively. Rather than attack for the sake of attacking, he’s choosier, and his efforts prove more lethal and effective. That’s quite a contrast to the young Valverde, who would attack almost without reason, and later pay the price by missing out against smarter rivals. Today he races with fearlessness of a neo-pro and the tactical acumen of a veteran.
“It’s always hard to win, but I’d say it’s harder now, because the racing is so controlled by the stronger teams,” he said. “That’s why I cannot believe I won 100 races. I’ve already beaten records in Murcia and now Andalucía, and that boosts my morale, and I will keep chasing records as long as my legs allow it.”
Any conversation about Valverde, however, cannot avoid mentioning the Operación Puerto scandal in 2006. Valverde’s name came up, and some crafty Italians eventually linked him to one of 200 blood bags, and he ended up serving a two-year ban. In fact, he was among only a handful of riders that ever faced disciplinary action, despite up to 60 other riders having been frequent Fuentes clients. That number could chance as WADA officials say they are testing nearly 200 blood bags to identify DNA, and though an eight-year statute of limitations has run out, WADA has hinted it would still release the names of athletes linked to Puerto.
For Valverde, his spell in disciplinary purgatory seems to have entrenched his love for the game. One can only hope he’s taken the right lessons out of the ban — he’s never been linked to any other doping case since his return — and he immediately went back to his winning ways.
How do we measure riders who raced in cycling’s dubious past and who are still winners today? Valverde has performed consistently across his long career, winning six races in his sophomore season, and reliably delivered results year-in, year-out. He’s won from the U.S. Postal Service era all the way through Team Sky’s domination of today.
If there’s one word to describe Valverde, it’s consistency. Last year, he raced all three grand tours (five straight going back to the 2015 Tour) and won a stage and finished third at the Giro, and then sixth at the Tour and 12th at the Vuelta riding to help Nairo Quintana. This year, he’s riding the Tour to help Nairo, and has hinted he will take aim at an all-out bid for final victory in the Vuelta a España.
Today, Valverde is more economical, and more likely to follow wheels and save his legs for the defining sprint in races like Liège, rather than attack from 40km out. At nearly 37, he knows his limits, and simply gets the most out of body. He can win out of reduced groups — his record six world championship medals from 2003 to 2014 are a testament to his dependability — and his only true weak points are time trialing and high altitude, suffering last year in the Giro across the Dolomites.
“Today, I am calmer in the races. I don’t get so nervous,” he said. “From now on, every race is a chance to improve my palmares and to continue racing the bike and making my fans happy. My personal life is more stable than ever, and that makes a big difference. I am surrounded by a great team and a great group of people. Who knows when I will quit? Right now, I am focused on each season, and will ride to fulfill my contract through 2019, then we will see.”
Those close to him say it’s not so complicated; he simply loves racing his bike. Those 100 victories are a testament to that passion.
“What’s next?” he said. “Well, if I may dream, I’d like to chase another Vuelta and the worlds. I’m the rider with the most podium finishes [six], but haven’t won the rainbow stripes. That’s something that I am still chasing.”
Valverde’s career highlights
17 stage race victories, including 2009 Vuelta a España
62 stage wins
21 one-day classics (4x Flèche, 3x Liège, 2x San Sebastián)
Six world championship medals