MADRID (VN) — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) still believes he has a Tour de France podium in his legs.
Spain’s “green bullet,” who turns 34 in April, has struggled in the Tour following his comeback in 2012 from a two-year racing ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal.
In 2012, he crashed out of contention in the infamous “Metz Massacre,” yet managed to salvage July by winning a stage in the Pyrénées. This year, he roared out of the Pyrénées second overall, only to see his GC hopes collapse in the crosswinds in stage 13.
For Valverde, reaching the Tour podium is front and center as he rides into 2014.
“I keep thinking [of] the Tour. I think the route is good for me next year,” Valverde told VeloNews in an interview. “I am not going to obsess about it, but I want to do it as well as possible.”
Though he won’t dare say it, Valverde seems cursed in the sport’s marquee stage race. Something always seems to happen to derail his GC hopes, be it an accident or some mistake he committed during the one stage race of the year in which every day counts.
“I’ve never quite been able to fulfill maximum at the Tour,” Valverde said. “Either through bad luck, perhaps an error, or a mechanical, there always seems to be something that impedes me.
“We’ll keep trying. At the same time, it’s not an obsession. Cycling is not just the Tour, but it’s there as an objective.”
Perhaps it is not an obsession, but Valverde knows the Tour is the benchmark of how the best in the sport are measured, and he would like to finish on the Tour podium at least once to complete his comeback.
Though he’s been discreet about what exactly happened in the Puerto case, Valverde returned in 2012 intent on proving to everyone he could win just as frequently as he did earlier in his career when he earned the nickname “el imbatido,” the unbeaten one.
He didn’t take long to rack up wins in 2012, knocking off victories in his first race back, at the Tour Down Under, and in such early races as Paris-Nice. Finishing second to Alberto Contador in the 2012 Vuelta a España and third in the world championships capped a solid return to form.
This year, Valverde made up for a lackluster run through the Ardennes the previous season, riding to second at Amstel Gold Race, third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and seventh at Flèche Wallonne.
The Tour was the real goal, and before most people had heard of Nairo Quintana, who would eventually finish second, the 2013 Tour was supposed to be all for Valverde.
Indeed, things were unfolding perfectly, with Valverde riding out of the Pyrénées in second place overall with his confidence flying sky high.
The wheels came off in the wind-battered stage 13. While everyone remembers Contador’s raid on Chris Froome (Sky) to take back more than a minute, Valverde was the real victim that day. He toppled out of podium range after losing 10 minutes when he was forced to change a real wheel just as the peloton was breaking into echelons. Unable to chase back, Valverde could only grit his teeth as Quintana became the sensation of the Tour.
“It was bad luck. I had good legs, both in the Pyrénées and in the Alps, to be at the front, but with this error, it wasn’t meant to be,” Valverde recounted with a sigh.
“It was a combination of circumstances. I had a problem with a wheel, in the worst possible moment in the worst stage … that’s life as a cyclist. I’ve already so much bad luck over the years in the Tour, well, one more time. … ”
Valverde said he likes the look of the 2014 Tour, saying that it’s “good for me,” but first he will have to make it over the cobblestones in the first week.
He confirmed last week he will race at least one northern classic and scout the pavé sectors in April to minimize the risk, but conceded that riding across the cobblestones, at least for skinny GC contenders like him, is often a “question of luck.”
“I’d like to get through a Tour without setbacks,” Valverde said. “I believe that I have the legs to do a good Tour. And for me, that’s the podium.
“And this year, with Purito (Joaquim Rodríguez) not going, he’s a big rival, Contador’s a big rival, Froome, Nibali … I wasn’t too far from where Nibali was at the Vuelta, so maybe I am not better than of them, but they’re not that much better than me, either. I see everyone at a similar level.”
Froome was certainly on a different level in 2013, something Valverde recognizes. Still, he said, every year starts anew.
“Froome this year was better than anyone this year. We’ll see what happens next year. If he’s the same Froome as this year, then it will be complicated,” he said.
“This year, he didn’t have a weak point. If he comes back as the same Froome as this year, it will be hard to beat him, whether it’s Nibali or anyone else. Every Tour is new.”
The Movistar captain should have the full support of the team, especially with the likely scenario of Nairo Quintana heading to the Giro d’Italia.
Last week, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué insisted that Quintana’s schedule has not yet been finalized, but every indication is that the Colombian will race the Giro and Valverde will get one more clean shot at the Tour.
“This year’s Tour favors me, especially with the final and only time trial coming on the penultimate stage. That favors less the specialists and more riders who have good form at the end of the Tour,” Valverde said.
“The route is good in that, if nothing else goes wrong, you’re not going to lose time in an early time trial, and you are strong in the mountains, so you still have all your options until the penultimate day. It’s a Tour that’s good for me. Let’s see.”
For Valverde, getting to that penultimate stage and the Tour’s lone time trial would be a victory unto itself. And if he can get there like he believes he can, the podium could very well be within reach.