Older, wiser Valverde facing 2013 with higher ambitions

Spaniard will focus on the Basque Country tour and hopes to deliver a podium in France in July

Alejandro Valverde says he’s older and wiser than in his more impetuous youth and vows to turn that experience toward even more ambitious goals in 2013.

After serving an 18-month ban for links to the Operación Puerto doping ring, Valverde returned with Movistar last year to quickly reassert himself as a force in the peloton, winning seven races in a haul that included second overall in the Vuelta a España, a stage in the Tour de France and bronze in the world championship road race.

“Last year I was nervous and uncertain about how I was going to respond,” Valverde said in an interview posted on Movistar’s website. “In Australia [Tour Down Under], in my first race back, I felt like a junior racer. Now I am calm and tranquil. I know now that I am strong and I have full confidence that 2013 will be a great season.”

Last year, Valverde was just coming off his controversial ban and was uncertain about what the future had in store. After posting another solid season and, as he says, “returning to my normal level,” he vows to take an even higher step in 2013.

“My objective for the Tour will be to reach the podium. I know I have it in my legs,” Valverde said. “My best Tour was sixth, but I know I can do better than that. I was fighting with (Alberto) Contador all the way to the end for victory in the Vuelta, and he’s always the favorite in France… so this gives me confidence that I can win a grand tour.”

Thirty-three years old in April, Valverde vows he’s a different man than the rider he was when he was caught up in the Eufemiano Fuentes’ blood doping ring dating back to 2006. Officials links blood bags found in police raids to Valverde and he was forced to sit out the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Although he’s never publicly admitted any wrongdoing or expanded on his links to controversial Spanish doctor, Valverde says he’s served his time and wants to only look to the future. That seems to be enough for his Movistar team, which was more than happy to welcome him back to the fold last season.

“I feel more mature. I have learned a lot, above all in the time during my ‘stop,’ and I can offer more now than I could before,” he said. “Before I was the leader, but only (on) the road. I was still young and I didn’t feel comfortable standing up against those who knew more than me.”

With his return last year, Valverde quickly paid back Movistar’s support, winning a stage in his first race back at the Tour Down Under in January and breaking down in tears on the podium. He later returned to Europe to win a stage and the overall at Ruta del Sol and win a stage and finish second at Paris-Nice.

Although he stalled in the spring classics, Valverde entered the Tour in top shape, only to crash heavily in the first week and lose too much time to be a GC factor. He bounced back to win a stage in the final week and then decided to start the Vuelta, where he won two stages, the points jersey and claimed second on the final podium behind Contador.

Valverde, who vows he’s racing clean, says his second place to Contador in the 2012 Vuelta gives him more confidence for future grand tours.

“I didn’t win the Vuelta, but my sensations were better than the Vuelta I won in 2009,” he said. “This confirmed to me that I am at a high level for the grand tours, because in the Tour, with my crashes and everything else, I left with a sour taste. The Vuelta erased all those doubts.”

His season for 2013 will start later, bypassing the Tour Down Under, with an early focus on the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Ardennes classics followed by a serious push for the Tour de France podium and a reload for the Vuelta a España.