I remember watching the 2018 UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck and a sense of dismay enveloping me as it moved towards its conclusion.
On the final lap, most of the favorites for the rainbow jersey dropped out of contention. After the final ascent of acutely steep Gramartboden, three riders sped down into the Austrian Olympic city to contest the medals – Frenchman Romain Bardet, Canada’s Mike Woods and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde.
On the run-in, the trio became a quartet when Dutchman Tom Dumoulin bridged up to them. One thought stood out in my mind: “Anyone but Valverde.”
At the same time, I knew that Valverde was almost certain to win.
Nicknamed “El Imbatido” – the unbeatable one – during his amateur days, he’d become precisely that in situations like the finale in Innsbruck, where his sprinting speed always gave him a winning edge, especially once he’d worked out the kinks in his tactical ability that often meant he missed out on winning opportunities in his early professional days.
The Spaniard sat on the front of the line, policing his rivals, until, with 200m to go, he felt the moment was right to accelerate. He’d judged it perfectly. What had been an elusive title was finally his, with UCI president David Lappartient beaming as he helped Valverde pull on the rainbow jersey.
Those anti-Balaverde sentiments – to use the nickname stemming from his bullet-like speed when in Kelme’s green colours – resurfaced over the last fortnight or so.
Firstly, at the Vuelta a España where the Spaniard, the race’s victor in 2009, was given a guard of honor at the end of his final appearance in his national tour. Then again during last weekend’s Il Lombardia, where the 42-year-old was feted alongside the great Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali as the pair prepared to line up in their final race.
I gritted my teeth and hoped that Lombardia didn’t produce an Innsbruck-like finale, a “fairytale” victory for the retiring veteran.
Thankfully, I was spared that, but I still had to wade through a huge dollop of revisionism in the build-up to Lombardy and during the race itself.
You know what I’m talking about. We all do. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Valverde was involved in the Puerto affair that almost sank men’s pro racing in 2006, that he was – and this is still hard to believe – the only Spanish professional who received any kind of ban as a result of his links to Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the heart of the doping ring that, when uncovered, implicated Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Thomas Dekker and others.
Also read: Case closed on Spain’s Operación Puerto
With some notable exceptions – the Cycling Podcast among them – there was barely mention of Valverde’s involvement with Fuentes in the build-up to Il Lombardia or during the race itself. It was as if time and 133 professional victories had all but erased the fact that the Spaniard had been involved in blood doping.
There were plenty of comments that left me shaking my head, one suggesting that there were “rough edges to the man’s past”, but the winner of the prize for most over-the-top tribute came from one Pedro Sánchez, who posted on Twitter: “After 21 seasons and 133 victories, Alejandro Valverde ends his career as a professional cyclist. Thank you for taking Spanish cycling to the top and for being an example of dedication, teamwork and desire to excel. My best wishes for your next step.”
Sánchez, I should add, is the current Spanish prime minister.
While I fully expect to be accused of raking up old news about Valverde, I think it’s impossible to laud him as “an example”. When, thanks to canny use of their links to the Spanish police, the Italian police managed to confirm that the blood in one of the bags seized during the Fuentes affair belonged to Valverde and continued evidence of EPO use, the Spaniard opted for what has become the standard route for athletes in these situations, and got his lawyers onto it.
After an extended legal battle that went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the CAS upheld the two-year ban that had been imposed on Valverde by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI). This then resulted in the UCI imposing a two-year ban on the Spaniard covering the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
In 2012, Valverde returned to action with his Movistar team and continued on his winning way. Yet, as Andrew Hood noted in VeloNews in the wake of Valverde’s third Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory in 2015, “It quickly became obvious that Valverde was not going to become a Spanish version of David Millar, the repentant ex-doper who was determined to help steer the sport in a new direction. Instead, Valverde kept his mouth shut, never provided any telling information about his relationship with Fuentes, and got back to the business of racing his bike.”
Which of these riders would you say was “an example”?
Obviously, it’s Millar, who came clean on doping and has consistently been an advocate for clean sport. Valverde, meanwhile, kept his head down and hoped it would all go away.
To a large extent, it did.
I understand why people don’t want to keep harking back to cycling’s dark past or being reminded of it, but trying to shut it away only makes it more likely that it will return, that racers will turn to doping again.
Past misdeeds have to be remembered, “shit” questions have to be asked.
Being aware of and coming to terms with the past is vital for a healthy sport in the future. Alejandro Valverde never acted on or even acknowledged this.
He was a hero to some, but not to me.