In Ruta del Sol jersey, Valverde still dreaming of Tour glory

Spaniard resets for what may be one last assault on the yellow jersey at the Tour

CADIZ, Spain (VN) — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) believes the 2013 Tour de France could be his best and perhaps last chance to aim for the yellow jersey.

A climb-heavy course long on mountains and short on time trials has a reborn Valverde dreaming big for cycling’s most important stage race.

“I think I have a (Tour) podium in my legs,” Valverde said. “I know it would be very difficult, but after seeing how the Vuelta [a España] was last year, it gives me confidence.”

Valverde, 33 in April, is referring to his wild mano-a-mano fight with Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) in the 2012 Vuelta, when he finished second to Contador.

Had it not been for a controversial crash in stage 4, when Valverde hit the deck as Sky turned up the heat to split the pack against heavy crosswinds, last year’s Vuelta might have finished quite differently.

Despite wearing the leader’s jersey, no one waited for Valverde in the closing 40km and he lost 55 seconds to the leaders, a time loss that changed the dynamic of the race. Valverde later rebounded and finished second to Contador by just 1:16.

As Valverde watched Rodríguez finish second in the Giro d’Italia by 16 seconds and Contador win the Vuelta, all he has to do is add up the numbers.

“I am going to give everything for arriving in top shape for the Tour,” Valverde said at the Ruta del Sol this week in Spain. “Last year, I had really bad luck in the Tour.”

That was last year. And last year was tumultuous yet highly successful comeback for Valverde from his controversial two-year racing ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal.

The Italians were clever to nab the Spaniard. When the 2008 Tour dipped into Italy, Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) officials took blood samples from Valverde. They did a DNA match against blood bags suspected to be Valverde’s and found a match.

The sport’s world governing body, the UCI, handed him a two-year racing ban, sidelining him for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

When he returned to racing last year, a skinnier, more serious Valverde wasn’t too keen on talking about his past. When VeloNews interviewed him last season, he kept the cards close to his chest.

“I paid my full suspension, but I don’t want to keep dwelling on it,” he said. “I have a clear conscience. I won before and I am winning again. Everyone can believe what they want.”

That’s hardly taking a page from the David Millar handbook on how to return from a doping ban, but Valverde, never accused of being a deep thinker, seems content to let his legs do the talking.

Last year, Valverde came out gangbusters, winning in his first race in two years up Old Willunga Hill at the Santos Tour Down Under and then winning the overall at the Ruta del Sol.

Despite falling flat in the Ardennes classics, Valverde entered the Tour in top shape. Two crashes in the first week knocked him out of the GC picture, but he rebounded to win a stage in the Pyrénées.

Second in the Vuelta only fueled his confidence for the Tour this year.

Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzue also believes Valverde could have a Tour podium in his legs.

“The course is a good one for Alejandro,” Unzue said. “He has improved in time trials and he’s always been able to climb. Maybe to win is too much, but the podium, why not? It’s realistic.”

Like 2012, Valverde has debuted this season on a winning note. He won a hilly stage at the Mallorca Challenge and then on Sunday delivered a surprise victory in the prologue at Ruta del Sol. It was his first time trial win in six years.

“This has been a very good winter. Not only on a personal level [Valverde got married for a second time], but because the uncertainty that I lived with for two years is gone,” he said. “I have worked a lot on time trials and in the gym to strengthen my core to hold the time trial position. It will never be my specialty, but I am getting better.”

Valverde’s best Tour was sixth in 2007, but it’s a long way from sixth to the power that the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will be putting down come July.

And 2007 was a long time ago, both for Valverde and where the peloton was then and where it is now.

Valverde, however, seems to have learned the same lessons as everyone else. It’s hard to read too much into his comments, but there’s no denying that he’s thinner and fitter than ever.

His prime race weight is 62 kilograms, nearly 10kg less than Wiggins when he won the Tour last year. That gives Valverde an advantage for the climbs, and with this year’s Tour featuring dramatically more climbing than in 2013, that could give Valverde wings.

Contador will certainly be in better condition than he was in last year’s Vuelta, but Valverde wasn’t even expecting to race the Vuelta until two weeks before he started.

His road to the Tour goes through the Volta a Catalunya (Tour of Catalonia), the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), the Ardennes, and the Tour de Romandie, with a likely start at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Whether that road leads to the Tour podium in Paris remains to be seen.