Analysis
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Sun likely setting on Spain’s world championships domination

Reigning champ Valverde promises to go down swinging, but this worlds likely marks end of glorious era that dates back to 1999

This Sunday’s elite men’s road race likely marks an end of an era for Spanish cycling

No nation has ruled the elite worlds like they have during the past two decades. Dating back to the first of three rainbow jerseys for Óscar Freire in 1999, Spain has won five world titles with three different riders, and notched nine other medals in that 20-year span. No other nation comes close in terms of depth, consistency, or total medals.

But Spain’s enviable worlds run probably all but ends Sunday, however, as Alejandro Valverde lines up as defending champion.

That’s not to say that the country won’t continue to be a major player every autumn, but with the looming retirement of Valverde and the absence of a clear replacement coming up the ranks, the future doesn’t look particularly promising.

“I am facing this worlds with a lot more tranquility,” Valverde told Spain’s Radio COPE. “I already have what I wanted, and that was to be world champion. It’s always nice to win another one, but the one I won will be there forever.”

Indeed, there’s a sense of nostalgia around the Spanish men’s road team, and rightly so.

Spain has been ahead of its rivals at world championship racing over the past two decades, ever since a then unknown Freire dashed to victory at the end of the last century.

Such traditional powerhouses as Italy and Belgium have performed well at the worlds, too, but not as consistently as the men from the Iberian Peninsula.

The once-mighty Italy used to dominate the world championships, but has slowly been in decline more recently. The Italians won four rainbow jerseys in an incredible run that started with Mario Cipollini in 2002, and ended with Alessandro Ballan’s in 2008. In between Paolo Bettini grabbed a pair. But the proud cycling nation has not returned to the world’s podium since.

Belgium won two world titles in the last 20 years — Tom Boonen in 2005 and Philippe Gilbert in 2012 — but has only hit the world’s podium two other times since 1999.

From a medal count standpoint, Australia comes closest to Spain in terms of depth and consistency. The Aussies struck gold with Cadel Evans in 2009, and have six other world’s medals over the past two decades.

Why has Spain been so consistent and successful?

The country was blessed with an abundance of talent that translated perfectly to world championship-style racing. Freire, Valverde, and opportunistic 2003 winner Igor Astarloa delivered five world titles thanks to a lethal finishing kick and unified team tactics. Joaquim Rodríguez won two medals, with bronze behind Cadel Evans and Alexander Kolobnev in 2009, and silver behind Rui Costa in the controversial finale into Florence. Freire added another bronze in 2000 in Plouay.

Valverde has been the backbone of the Spanish national selection success since his spectacular debut with silver in 2003. Going into Austria last year, he’d won a record six worlds medals, though none gold. Last year he changed that.

Valverde didn’t want to end his career as the rider with the most world’s medals without having won the world title. Now that he has that monkey off his back, he philosophically approaches his rainbow jersey defense in Yorkshire.

“I never thought I would be at this age, fighting to win the Vuelta a España or the worlds,” Valverde told COPE. “I feel very respected inside the peloton.”

Another key reason behind Spain’s worlds consistency is the depth of its teams over the years. Though occasionally things would go off the rails — like they infamously did during the 2013 worlds in Florence when Rodríguez and Valverde finished behind Rui Costa — Spain typically raced as a unified front.

Valverde is the last of his generation that included Freire, Rodríguez and grand tour riders such as Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Veteran helpers Luis León Sánchez, Imanol Erviti and José Joaquín Rojas remain, but Spain is lacking a proven winner of worlds-style racing waiting in the wings.

The Spanish national wrapped up a training camp along the Mediterranean Coast before heading to Yorkshire.

“We all know each other for many years,” Valverde told COPE. “Sometimes you have problems with someone. I never had enemies in the peloton, but there are some you get along with better than others. I got along very well with Freire. I was able to share many worlds with him, and for me he remains a role model on how to race.”

Valverde might have another worlds in his legs — as well as a run at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games — but things are not as bright when it comes to looking to the future of Spain’s hopes.

Worlds newcomer Iván García Cortina has the right profile, but at 23, he’s making his elite world’s debut. Other promising Spanish riders such as Marc Soler and Enric Mas do not pack the type of explosive power and speed required to win a typical worlds circuit-course finale.

Still the Spanish team intends to ride with the their heads held high on Sunday.

“I am motivated for the worlds,” Valverde said. “We have a great team lining up and I’m in good form. Once I see the course and check out the weather, I’ll be able to better estimate my chances.”

If things go right he could end up on the podium once again. But either way, this year looks to be the end of a long and glorious chapter for Spanish cycling.