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Love him or loathe him, Alejandro Valverde will leave a lasting legacy

Even with his hazy history, Valverde's retirement will end an era.

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Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying the peloton will be a strange and empty space without Alejandro Valverde.

Valverde retires at the end of this season, closing out a 21-year career that has brought 131 victories, a tally second only to Mark Cavendish in the rankings of active riders.

While some of the peloton’s illustrious elder statesmen – Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, and Vincenzo Nibali for example – have started to fade in old age, Valverde continues to defy his receding hairline.

His searing summit sprint to beat Brandon McNulty, a rider 18 years his junior, in Mallorca this weekend says it all.

“More than age, it’s the 20 years that I have been a professional at the highest level that’s the key thing. It is something very, very difficult to achieve, not only physically, but also mentally, and even I am surprised that I am still here,” Valverde said after winning the Trofeo Pollença on Saturday.

“When I was younger I made statements that at 34 years old I believed that I would no longer be racing. I’m going to be 42 in April and I’m still racing and winning.”

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Sure, Valverde has a murky past, and his two-year doping suspension will forever blot his palmarès.

But there’s no doubt that Spain’s “green bullet” has one of the most consistent and rich palmàres in the peloton.

He’s won at least once every year except for the 2010 and 2011 seasons he spent on the sidelines and the COVID-interrupted calendar that caught him out of his groove in 2020. In 2018, he topped the UCI rankings and won the Velo d’Or, all at the age of 38.

And it looks like Valverde’s not going to be out of the frame in 2022.

Three top-6s in the first races of the year gave his retirement season the type of kick-start that even Tom Brady would be jealous of.

Valverde rolls out with his Movistar crew at the Volta a la Valenciana on Wednesday ahead of one last return to the Ardennes hunting ground he made his own during his peak. From there, he’ll close his grand tour account at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España.

“It’s my last year as a professional, and I want to enjoy it to the maximum,” Valverde said last week. “I also hope I can get some results this year, here and across the rest of the calendar.”

Also read: Valverde debuts final season with a flurry

Whether Valverde “gets some results” again in 2022, a poke into his palmarès (doping questions aside) sheds light on how much the Spaniard has already achieved. He rode high through every era he was a part of.

Valverde has won Fléche Wallonne more times than any other male rider with five victories, and he’s finished top-10 in two-thirds of his 15 races to the top of the Muur.

In the not altogether unlikely event that he wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège again this spring, he’ll level Eddy Merckx with five wins at La Doyenne.

A Valverde quick-view:

  • 131 pro wins:
    • 32 x one-day races
    • 67 x stages
    • 8 x ITT (remember when he used to be good at those?)
    • 24 x GC
  • Monuments:
    • Milano-Sanremo x 7 – 7th (2019)
    • Tour of Flanders x 1 – 8th (2019)
    • Liège-Bastogne-Liège x 14 – 1st x 4 (2006, 2008, 2015, 2017)
    • Il Lombardia x 10 – 2nd x 3 (2013, 2014, 2019)
  • Grand Tours
    • Tour de France x 14 – 4 x stage wins, 3rd on GC (2015)
    • Giro d’Italia x 1 – 1 x stage win, 3rd on GC (2016)
    • Vuelta a España x 14 – 12 x stage wins, 1st on GC (2009)

And it’s not just the raw totals that tell a story.

Valverde has been a factor for as long as the period between Tadej Pogačar leaving playschool and winning the biggest bike race in the world.

Valverde’s victory count at both Liège and Flèche began in 2006. He stood second on the podium in his first appearance at the world championships in 2003 and finally won the thing 15 years later, scooping a total of eight top-10s in the middle. No matter what the course on tap for worlds, Valverde makes it work.

A respect beyond his background

Sepp Kuss and Alejandro Valverde talk after stage 15 of the Tour de France
Valverde was one of the first to congratulate Sepp Kuss after the Coloradan distanced him for his TdF victory last year. (Photo: Thomas Samson – Pool/Getty Images)

Valverde’s exit at the close of this season will see results-sheets lose a mainstay. But his retirement will hit harder than that.

Although Valverde has haters on his shoulder for his continued quietness about Operacion Puerto, many in the pro peloton see him as an exemplar.

“It was really eye-opening for me to see what he’s like, about how meticulous about things he is at races and his diet,” Valverde’s young teammate Matteo Jorgenson told VeloNews last year.

“Even after 20 years pro he has the same motivation as young neo pros coming up. For me that was really impressive to see what it’s like to be at the very top level on all fronts, training, eating, recovery. It was a super good experience for me to race with him, and I think I learned a lot watching him.”

The respect goes beyond the Movistar team bus, a vehicle where Valverde has been reserved the pride-of-place front seat. Rivals and allies alike speak with an admiration that goes beyond team alliances – even if some of his more ruthless racing plays raised eyebrows.

But though “Bala” still has his killer instinct, it seems he’s already won so many races that he doesn’t rant and rail when he misses out.

Valverde was one of the first to congratulate Sepp Kuss when the Coloradan denied him a fifth Tour stage win last summer. The Spaniard was even able to keep a lid on it when Tim Wellens nearly slammed him into the barriers in the Serra de Tramuntana sprint Friday.

Valverde is on more than 1,300 race days already. It will be intriguing to see what he achieves in the few dozen more that are to come.

Another win seems inevitable. But even if he’s way out the back, Valverde will leave a lasting impression.