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Giro d'Italia

Valverde doesn’t fear return to Italy despite Puerto ban

Italian authorities played a crucial role in Alejandro Valverde's two-year racing ban, but the Spaniard insists he's over the past.

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Alejandro Valverde insists he isn’t afraid to race the Giro d’Italia despite the role Italian authorities played in his two-year racing ban in 2010.

Italian anti-doping officials linked him to blood bag evidence as part of the Operación Puerto doping scandal, but in an interview with the Spanish daily MARCA, the Spanish star insists he’s put it all behind him.

“What happened, happened, but that doesn’t mean I have anything against Italy or Italians at all,” the Movistar rider told MARCA. “That’s all over now. And the Italians don’t have anything against me, either. When I raced at Tirreno-Adriatico or Milano-Sanremo, I feel very supported and loved. It’s been a pleasure.”

Valverde rarely speaks about the ban, and told MARCA he’s simply turned the page. The Spanish star lines up Friday as a favorite for the pink jersey as he starts the Giro for the first time of his career.

“I am a person who tries to forget bad things and remember the good things,” Valverde continued. “Right now, any time I have to head to Italy to race, I don’t dwell on any of that stuff. I don’t have any problem with it at all.”

Italy played a key role in Valverde’s Puerto ban. Nearly 60 riders from several teams were linked to the Puerto scandal, but Valverde is only one of six riders who have served a racing ban for connections to the international blood doping ring organized by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.

Despite being identified as a Puerto client with the nickname “Piti” via a list of codenames confiscated in police raids, Valverde denied working with Fuentes. While others, such as Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were kicked out of the 2006 Tour de France for alleged links to Fuentes, Valverde continued to race.

Things changed in 2008 when the Tour route dipped into Italy. That night after the stage to Prato Nevoso, Italian anti-doping authorities drew samples of Valverde’s blood. Using the broad powers of Italy’s anti-doping laws, prosecutors secured a court order to have access to evidence held by Spanish authorities, and used DNA testing to connect Valverde to one of the Fuentes blood bags. In 2009, Italians imposed a racing ban within its borders, but Valverde went on to win that year’s Vuelta a España. After losing an appeal, a back-dated, two-year ban was handed down from January 2010, sidelining Valverde from all international competition until 2012.

In fact, he said the Puerto ban might have helped prolong his career. Now 36, Valverde only seems to have improved since his return to racing in 2012, with a third place at the 2015 Tour de France, several victories at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as well as winning the UCI WorldTour title in 2014 and 2015.

“This ‘stop’ allowed me to be fresher now. I was a year and a half without racing, so it was like a break time for my body,” Valverde said. “Even though I kept training during that time and took care of myself, all that helped me to feel even better now. Of course, I would have preferred to have kept racing, but I did not feel bitter or torture myself about what happened. I enjoyed my life just as I do now, with my family, it was like as if I was on holiday.”

Despite the Italian drama, an optimistic Valverde lines up Friday as one of the five-star favorites for the 99th Giro d’Italia.