Ask the pros who they view as a favorite for Tokyo Olympic Games?
The usual names come up, but there’s one more — Alejandro Valverde.
Valverde isn’t racing Saturday to be a tourist or to help a teammate. The veteran will be Spain’s outright leader, and one of the five-star favorites to strike gold.
“The course is perfect for me,” Valverde said from Tokyo. “[National coach Pascual] Momparler did a recon, and he told me it’s ideal for me. The heat will be good for me, maybe not so much the humidity. I believe it’s a course where we can be at the front.”
Valverde headlines a strong five-rider Spanish selection that also includes Gorka and Ion Izagirre, Jesús Herrada, and Omar Fraile.
With his finishing speed and experience, Valverde will start as one of the front-line favorites.
Entering what could be one of his final major international races — though Valverde already hinted he might race into 2022 — and certainly his final Olympics, the 2018 world champion enters the race following a solid showing at the Tour de France.
Throughout the Tour, Valverde was careful to avoid crashing and did not go too deep despite helping Movistar teammate Enric Mas arrive in Paris in sixth overall.
As always, Valverde was hiding just under the surface, but his intentions for Tokyo were broadcast loud and clear when the Tour entered Andorra.
Only a superb Sepp Kuss denied Valverde a stage victory on stage 15, when he finished second at 23 seconds behind the Colorado climber.
📊Alejandro VALVERDE 🇪🇸 is the oldest cyclist finishing a stage 1st or 2nd in the TOUR DE FRANCE HISTORY#TdF2021
— La Vuelta Stats (@lavuelta_stats) July 11, 2021
“It’s obvious the Tour is the most important race there is,” Valverde said. “But in the Olympic Games, you’re representing your country, and a victory there will last forever. So if I had to choose between the two, I’d take the Olympics.”
That statement reveals just how committed he is toward his Olympic ambition.
Realizing the Tokyo course, with its selective climbs and fast finish, was ideal for him, Valverde postponed retirement to stay in top condition.
The year postponement due to COVID-19 means Valverde will be the oldest starter in the elite men’s road race at 41.
Fifth time a charm?
The Spanish rider returns for what will be his fifth Olympic Games.
Valverde was a sprite 24-year-old when he made his Olympic debut in 2004. His best result came in 2008 when he was 13th behind compatriot Samuel Sánchez, who won gold in Beijing. Valverde was 18th in London, and 30th in Rio de Janeiro.
The Olympics are a very complicated race because there are only five on the team,” he said in a video released by the national federation. “My best year was the year Sánchez won, but due to how the race unfolded, I could not be there, but for me, Samuel’s gold medal was as if I had won because, in the end, it was a victory for the national team.”
¡Eterno @alejanvalverde! 🚴♂️🇪🇸
— Los Juegos Olímpicos (@juegosolimpicos) July 15, 2021
Valverde, of course, has experience winning major international competitions.
In fact, he sees similarities between Tokyo and the course he took victory on in Innsbruck in 2018, where he won a four-up sprint to end his long string of close-calls at the worlds to finally win the rainbow jersey.
Valverde is hoping lightning strikes twice.
“The Olympics could be my final motivation,” he said.
“An ideal race for me would be similar to the worlds,” he explained. “During those worlds, everything went my way, I felt good, and my teammates were spectacular that day. If I could repeat those circumstances it would be the maximum I could ask for.”