After years of coming close, Alejandro Valverde finally wins a rainbow jersey. His checkered past makes it a complicated race for cycling fans.
Cycling fans were treated to two stunning world championship races over the weekend. On one hand, the Dutch dominated the women’s race, delivering Anna van der Breggen to her first rainbow jersey — the final piece of the puzzle for this decorated rider. On the other hand, we had a thrilling four-man sprint for the men’s title with Alejandro Valverde finally winning worlds. The veteran Spaniard isn’t always a fan favorite though. How should we feel about this outcome? Time for a roundtable.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: How do you feel about Alejandro Valverde’s victory, given his checkered past?
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Look, I fully admit that I would have preferred to see Romain Bardet or Mike Woods win the race. But I’m fine with Valverde winning. Totally at peace with it. It was up to Bardet and Woods to drop him on the climb because that was the only shot they had. When they couldn’t drop him — they came oh-so-close — Valverde became the favorite, and poof, he won. Yes, Valverde is a relic from the doping era, and yes, his past is checkered. He served his suspension, he came back and kept winning. No, he never apologized. But he also didn’t make up any ridiculous excuses involving tainted food, and he never threatened to ruin the lives of those around him, so far as we know. If I wanted to, I could let Valverde’s presence in the peloton ruin my cycling fandom. Why do that? When I look at Valverde’s major wins (early-season stage races aside), I have not seen dominating performances of someone with otherworldly form. Valverde hides in the pack and never puts his nose into the wind until the last kick to the line. Is he a wheel-sucker? Sure. Is he ruining cycling? Hardly. Had Valverde gone off the front on Sunday with 60km to go and won by two minutes, then yeah, I would feel pretty lousy about the win. But he won by half a bike length in a sprint to the line.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: I have a confession to make: Watching Valverde win races is one of my guilty pleasures. Some people hate him for sitting in the wheels, but when he wins a race with tactical nous and perfect timing — it’s a thing of beauty. Some people hate him for being so unapologetic after serving a doping ban for Operacion Puerto (and immediately winning a stage Tour Down Under when he came back). I don’t love that side of his persona, and that’s why I say it is a guilty pleasure to watch him win. At this point, that ban was about 10 years ago. I’m not sure what the statue of limitations is on righteous outrage, but for me, his tactical brilliance speaks for itself. The real crime is that terrible Spanish national team kit. Talk about ruining the sport for us fans!
Dane Cash, @danecash: I’m no fan of Valverde’s early career path or of the way he has never come clean about it, but he has not had any run-ins with the authorities since then. He — like Alberto Contador, who never faced the same level of post-ban disdain from fans — served his time. Would I rather see squeaky clean guys take the big wins than convicted cheaters? Sure, but I can still respect Valverde’s performance.
Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Well, the optics certainly would have been better to see a rider of today’s new generation win, like, say, Gianni Moscon … oh wait! Valverde is no angel and it’s impossible to say what he might be up to these days. The assumption is that he is on the same playing field today as everyone else in the peloton, just as he was a decade ago. There are plenty of indications that the peloton has changed from its dirty old days and one can only assume and hope that Valverde has changed with the times. Valverde might not have said the right things that would have pleased the PC police in the wake of his two-year doping ban, but even if he prefers to be discreet, one could argue that at least Valverde paid the price whereas there are dozens of big names on that Puerto list who never got caught. Valverde is no saint, but he doesn’t want to play the martyr, either. The Valverde quandary is a rabbit hole with no easy exit.
Of the three other contenders at the finish of the men’s race (Woods, Bardet, and Dumoulin), who had the best shot at beating Valverde and how would he have done it?
Fred: Woods and Bardet needed to drop Valverde on the 28 percent ramps of the climb, and they almost succeeded in doing that. Go back and watch the replay—Woods accelerates and drops Moscon and Valverde begins to suffer. If the climb had gone on another few hundred meters at that steepness, my guess is Woods and Bardet would have been able to squash Valverde like a bug. But alas, the road leveled out.
Spencer: I know Dumoulin said afterward that he was completely empty when he caught the lead trio, but I think he should have ridden right past them in the flat. Maybe he didn’t have the matches to go the distance, but I doubt Valverde, Bardet, and Woods would have cooperated to chase. Valverde always sits in the wheels (see above). Bardet knows he should never ever pull a fast finisher like Valverde to the line. And Woods? Well maybe he’d pull, but the intimidation factor of a former world time trial champion off the front might have been too much for them to rally.
Dane: Bardet looked pretty strong throughout the finale. If he’d gone all out on the final climb, maybe he could have left Valverde in the dust.
Andrew: It was an ideal scenario for Valverde. He was clearly the fastest finisher in that select group. One could argue that Dumoulin should have come right over the top when he chased back on and tried to TT it to the line. With fresher legs, that might have worked, but Dumoulin said he was cooked. Perhaps an early sprint might have surprised Valverde, but “Bala” played it perfectly.
In the women’s race, what would it have taken to beat Anna van der Breggen and the Dutch team?
Fred: Anna van der Breggen’s performance on that course was so dominant that I’m convinced that no tactics could have taken her down. The course, with its long climb, was simply too selective for tactics and strategies to overcome strength. Chapeau to van der Breggen. She was simply the strongest.
Spencer: Maybe if van der Breggen had crashed and broken her leg? Well, her teammate Annemiek van Vleuten did, and that didn’t keep her from attacking the last climb and finishing top-10. This Dutch squad was a team of destiny.
Dane: As strong as van der Breggen looked on Saturday, I don’t know that any crafty tactics would have made a difference. She was just too good, on a course that suited her perfectly.
Andrew: The way the Dutch are racing these days, it would have taken an intra-squad betrayal to knock her back. Anna van der Breggen’s performance was sublime at every level. Unbeatable on the day.
For the first time since 2011, the U.S. team didn’t win any medals at worlds. Should we be worried?
Fred: It’s unfortunate, but I expect team USA to be back in the hunt. Next year’s rolling course could suit Coryn Rivera, and Katie Clouse is coming up in the junior ranks. And in the meantime, we can all become mountain bike fans, right?
Spencer: If I were USA Cycling, I would have pulled the panic button out of the drawer and flipped the clear plastic guard open … But I wouldn’t hit that button just yet. For a long time, the U.S. team has relied on strong time trial performances to win medals, especially in the elite women’s race. Hopefully, Chloe Dygert Owen can step into that role in the years to come.
Dane: Not any more so than usual. Lately, it’s been the youngsters and the elite women racking up the worlds medals for the U.S. Even if they didn’t bring any home this time around, there are still plenty of promising American up-and-comers out there, and some very talented women who are better suited to a different style of racing. Katie Hall, for instance, is more of a stage racer, and Coryn Rivera prefers a less climber-friendly course.
Andrew: If it wasn’t for the behind-the-scenes investment and recruitment going on, maybe. Austria’s course wasn’t ideal for today’s fleet of U.S. riders. On the women’s side, we’re at a generational shift. On the men’s side, well, it’s the same old story of trying to convince the top pros to line up and commit to worlds. Kudos to the riders who did.