Giro d'Italia
Alejandro Valverde rode in the middle his...

Valverde well placed after Giro’s Dutch start

The 38-year-old Spaniard is vying to become the oldest winner of the Giro d'Italia — in his corsa rosa debut.

CATANZARO, Italy (VN) — At 36 years old, Alejandro Valverde would be the oldest winner of the Giro d’Italia if he were to take home the trophy in three weeks time in Torino. He would also be the oldest debutant to win the race, beating fellow Spaniard Miguel Indurain who won at 27 years old in 1992. He and team Movistar aim to do just that.

Team manager Eusebio Unzué asked Valverde this winter if he wanted to race in the Giro d’Italia for the first time. Valverde has already raced 18 grand tours, 10 times at home in the Vuelta a España and eight times the Tour de France. He won the Vuelta in 2009 and placed third in the Tour last year, and he counts five other podium places — but had never raced for the pink jersey entering this year.

“At the end of last year, when we started talking about the program,” Unzué told VeloNews ahead of the third stage Sunday, “I said, ‘Alejandro, I don’t know how many years you have left in your career, but it’s not right that you don’t know what the Giro d’Italia is.’ He bought into the idea, he liked it a lot and we started working right away on the project.”

He is going up against top favorite and 31-year-old Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, who has notched a victory in every grand tour. The last time he attended the Giro, in 2013, he left victorious. Sky’s Mikel Landa finished third last year with Astana and this year, the 26-year-old starts for the first time as team leader with Sky supporting him.

“But Alejandro has class and love for this sport. Still at 36 years old, he is able to wake up and be happy to race. Besides that, he pulls our team together. Here in the Giro, he gives some guarantee of victory. That helps a lot for a team that has three weeks of work ahead. They race differently when they know that they are doing so for a winner,” Unzué said.

“We have to be respectful, but for sure, he’s here to try to win the trophy. We are not ruling out a win. We know that Vincenzo is a strong favorite. Landa is trying to confirm his role as a grand tour leader. The Giro suits him well. OK, if Alejandro only gets on the podium, that’s great, but we are trying for the win.”

Said Valverde before the race began in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn: “My objective is clear. I came here to win.”

The race already started well. Behind Nibali, who put 21 seconds into Landa, Valverde was the second best GC favorite in the 9.8-kilometer time trial through Apeldoorn. Valverde, who just won the Flèche Wallonne last month, finished five seconds behind Nibali and 16 up on Landa.

As soon as Valverde agreed to race the Giro, he and Unzué created a schedule that would allow the Murcian to arrive ready. He raced Tirreno-Adriatico in March to get an Italian race in his legs, and before and after that he previewed some of the Giro stages.

“He went and visited the mountain stages, apart from the ones on the French border,” added Unzué. “He rode the stages in the Dolomites and the eastern part of the Alps, and the two time trials — the mountain one in the third week and the Chianti one next week.”

If Valverde does win the spiral trophy May 29 in Torino, he would also complete an Italian resurrection. The Bel Paese was not so welcoming to the Spaniard in 2008. Valverde was racing the Tour de France despite being linked to the Operación Puerto investigation, and Italian drug testers took a DNA sample from him in a standard anti-doping control when the Tour stopped in Italy that year. The Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) used the sample to match it to some of the coded blood bags seized by Spanish police in May 2006. The discovery led to a two-year doping ban for Valverde.

He did not return to race again in Italy until 2013. “But that wasn’t the reason that he never raced the Giro d’Italia,” Unzué said. “It was more that the team was sponsored by Caisse d’Epargne, we always needed to take the best riders to the Tour and in our home race, the Vuelta. It was the same when Movistar took over.”

After the Giro, Valverde will also likely race the Tour. Unzué’s new Colombian star Nairo Quintana, who placed second to Sky’s Chris Froome last year, will lead team Movistar.