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Alejandro Valverde has six Ardennes classics wins....

Valverde taking Giro debut very seriously

Alejandro Valverde has six wins in the Ardennes classics, but this week he's focused on staying safe and fit for his Giro d'Italia debut.

Alejandro Valverde downplayed his chances ahead of the Ardennes classics despite roaring to victory at the three-day Vuelta a Castilla y León over the weekend in Spain.

The Movistar rider won two stages and the overall at Castilla y León, but he admitted things will be tougher when he faces off against a much deeper, WorldTour field as he defends titles at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège later this week.

“The field of contenders is completely different to what I had to face this weekend,” Valverde said in a team press release. “Those are races I’ve really enjoyed for years, but my main goal at the moment is staying safe and keeping my form going up before the biggest goal of the early season for me, which is the Giro [d’Italia].”

Those remarks only reconfirm that Valverde is taking his Giro debut very seriously. In fact, he tweaked his spring racing calendar, bypassing the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold Race, to train and race to better hone his approach to the Giro.

Valverde is usually a major player in the Ardennes classics. Why? The courses are not only perfectly suited for him, but in a typical year, Valverde hits his spring peak form for the Ardennes before taking a break ahead of the Tour de France. This year is different, and the team is hoping Valverde can hit top strength in May to challenge for the Giro’s pink jersey. That means he won’t be at his absolute best this week.

Valverde will be in the mix in the hilly Ardennes races, however. He’s won Liège and Flèche three times each, and he’s twice pulled off the double (2006, 2015). Spanish riders have won Flèche the last four years: Joaquim Rodríguez, Dani Moreno, and Valverde the past two seasons. At Liège, Valverde’s been on the podium in every year’s he’s raced dating back to 2006, except in 2009 when he finished 19th.

Racing in Spain over the weekend, Movistar dominated the peloton with a mix of smaller teams, winning all three stages and the overall. Carlos Betancur won his first race in two years with the flowers in the opening stage Friday. Valverde won the second, with Betancur still in the leader’s jersey, but the Colombian couldn’t hold the pace in Sunday’s mountaintop finale, opening the door for Valverde’s overall triumph.

The victory was Valverde’s 95th of his career, and the 12th for Movistar in 2016. The overall was also Movistar’s fourth stage race win of the year, along with Dayer Quintana at the Tour de San Luís, Nairo Quintana at the Volta a Catalunya, and Valverde at Ruta del Sol and Castilla y León.

“The race couldn’t have gone better, and this is an excellent way to get the racing pace and start building up before the Giro, which I am so excited about,” Valverde said. “Now it’s all about Flèche and Liège. The win? Well, we’ll see.”