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For the love of the game — inside Valverde’s Flanders debut

World champion Alejandro Valverde will make his debut at Tour of Flanders Sunday, expecting to soak in the experience rather than sprint for a win.

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WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde was drawing bigger crowds than the Belgians on Wednesday.

The Spaniard lined up for Dwars door Vlaanderen ahead of his widely anticipated Tour of Flanders debut Sunday, and everyone wanted a peek at the rainbow jersey.

Valverde admits his chances of winning Sunday’s Flanders are slimmer than a snowy day in July in his hometown of Murcia, but he didn’t want to miss the chance to race the Ronde van Vlaanderen at least once in his career.

“I have to be realistic, and I know that it’s very, very difficult [to try to win Flanders],” Valverde said as journalists cornered him for a word. “What I really want is to go [to Flanders], enjoy cycling, and enjoy the Flanders fans.”

The Spanish superstar is soaking up his world champion season and is riding into 2019 with a bucket list of top goals. Showing off the rainbow jersey at one of cycling’s most historic and prestigious races was something he simply couldn’t resist.

Movistar sport director Chente García Acosta, who was one of the rare Spanish riders to fully embrace the Flemish classics during his racing career, helped convince Valverde he should bring the rainbow jersey to Flanders.

“He wanted this season to be special, and do a few races that he’s never done. I told him to put Flanders right at the top of the list,” Garcia Acosta said. “I always told him about how amazing the ambiance is here at Flanders, and he didn’t want to miss that feeling at the start in the big square at Antwerp.”

On Wednesday, Valverde certainly had a taste of the kind of welcome he’ll receive Sunday in Antwerp ahead of the start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Fans squeezed in around the Movistar bus at the start in Roeselare, with one fan holding a sign in Spanish, “Belgian fans give a warm welcome to Alejandro.”

Journalists tailed Valverde as he pedaled to the jam-packed main square for the sign-in protocol. He quickly downplayed any speculation that he should be considered a favorite for Sunday’s Ronde.

“I can be near the front, but to be honest, to win is complicated because there are riders here who are more experienced than me on the pavé,” he said. “I’m here to enjoy the ambiance of Flanders.”

Last year, Valverde raced to 11th at Dwars under a Flemish spring tempest as part of his preparation for the Tour de France, which was once again featuring some challenging sectors of cobblestones.

This year he’s back on the cobblestones for love of the game.

“We are here without pressure,” García Acosta explained. “We’ll see what happens during the race without losing our heads, see how he gets over the sectors of cobblestone, and see if he can make a good race.”

Movistar is never a top-tier favorite for the Flemish classics, but this year they’ve signed Belgian veteran Jurgen Roelandts. German rider Jasha Sütterlin has also stepped up. But all eyes are on Valverde in his rainbow jersey.

Valverde included Flanders in his spring calendar, which is typically focused on the Ardennes classics. That won’t change, and he’s set to race Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège as scheduled. He’s also bound for the Giro d’Italia and later the Vuelta a España, passing on the Tour de France in his world champion season.

Racing Flanders is the big highlight of Valverde’s spring, and just as much as journalists are hyping his appearance, team officials were tamping down expectations.

“It’s difficult to think of winning,” García Acosta said of Flanders. “Alejandro is in good shape, but we all know Flanders is a race that you really need to know. And it’s a very long, hard race. You never know with Alejandro, he’s a fighter. He also weighs 60kg, so we will see what happens.”

The team will preview several of the key sectors of the Flanders course later this week ahead of Valverde’s debut. The team will plot a strategy for Sunday, with riders assigned to protect Roelandts and Valverde. And if something big happens, well, that’s even better.

“I’m happy to be here, let’s see if we can have a good day,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve done the pavé this year and it will be complicated, but I have an experienced team around me and they will try to protect me. I hope to be up front.”

And on Sunday, he’ll be a Ronde rookie at 38, barely six months after winning the world title in his late 30s. Better late than never.