Hot off his third-career Ardennes double, Alejandro Valverde is like a fine Spanish wine that just keeps getting better with age. In 26 race days so far this year, he’s only finished out of the top-20 once, and won a WorldTour-leading 11 stages and races along the way. That’s downright Merckxian by any measure.
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While Valverde’s domination is celebrated in Spain — the Spanish daily MARCA gave Valverde a full-page spread Tuesday to celebrate his 37th birthday — more than a few might be rolling their eyes. You could almost hear the collective groan on social media when Valverde powered to victory Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. To some, Valverde’s run seems too good to be true.
There’s an expression in Spain that seems to fit the moment — “No se puede poner la mano en el fuego por nadie” — that roughly translates to, “Don’t put your hand in the fire for anyone.”
Yet rather than blindly thrusting our collective hands into the fire, perhaps it’s better to step back at arm’s length, and look at things contextually. Just how “amazing” was Valverde’s spring? Here are some talking points:
1. Age advantage
The first thing to cause skepticism is Valverde’s age. He turned 37 this week, an age when cyclists often retire. So how is Valverde better than ever at his age? A few things to consider: Valverde has never suffered a serious crash or major injury throughout his career, and his two-year stop for the Puerto ban actually gave his body a break from the day-in, day-out rigors of racing. When he returned in 2012, he said he felt like he had a second chance on life. Remember, Joop Zoetemelk won the world title at 38. And while younger riders are succeeding in today’s peloton, 2017 seems to be season of the 30-something winners. Three of the four monuments this spring were won by riders in their 30s (except Michal Kwiatkowski, 26, at Milano-Sanremo), with Greg Van Avermaet at 31 and Philippe Gilbert at 34. Sure, Valverde is old, but veteran riders will also tell you they know how to train, how to recover, and how to get the most out of their bodies.
2. Focus on strengths
With that age comes the wisdom of knowing his strengths. Valverde’s schedule is packed with races he knows he can win. In fact, he tries to win nearly ever race he starts (another reason why he’s always hovering in the top 10). The three stage races he won this spring — Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya, and Vuelta al Pais Vasco — were packed with stages that suit his style of racing. The short, punchy climbs, the undulating time trials, and mid-range mountaintop finales of the week-long Spanish tours are where Valverde thrives. And the Ardennes are simply an extension of Valverde’s favored terrain. Valverde isn’t blowing the wheels off everyone at Ronde van Vlaanderen; he sticks to what he knows.
3. Spring peak
If Valverde was winning everywhere, all the time, then it might be time to hack into his UCI medical files — but he’s not. Valverde targeted an early season peak in March and April, and prepared for the Ardennes classics just like the cobble-bashers do for the northern classics. And now he’s taking a break before returning to the Tour de France as a helper for Nairo Quintana in July, with an eye on possibly targeting the overall in the Vuelta a España. You don’t see Valverde trying to win over the bumpy cobbles at Paris-Roubaix, and he’s given up on the Tour de France, because he knows the longer climbs and time trials are too much for him. This spring was to Valverde what July is to Chris Froome.
4. Team support
Another major factor in Valverde’s amazing spring run is how well Movistar is riding to support him in both stage races and one-day classics. Movistar is among the few teams deep enough with talent and budget to rival Team Sky across the calendar. Other teams might have an equally stacked squad or even a bigger star, but unless those two elements line up on the day — team support coupled with an on-form captain — it’s very hard to win solely on pure talent. Look at Peter Sagan, clearly the most gifted rider in the peloton: This spring he came away with only one major victory, in part because he didn’t have the team support like Van Avermaet and Valverde enjoyed. Movistar has the horsepower to control the race on the flats, and then the climbers to keep Valverde enveloped inside a protective cocoon. You didn’t even see Valverde at Flèche Wallonne until the final 150 meters of the Mur de Huy because he was being towed at the front of the peloton. And it was same story at Liège, where he finally was forced to move with 500m to go when Dan Martin (Quick-Step) attacked. If Valverde wasn’t on Movistar, he wouldn’t be winning nearly as much.
5. Calculation beats panache
People often remark about how much they like Valverde’s aggressive racing style, which baffles me. As Valverde’s gained more experience, he’s become more surgical and less of a risk-taker. Earlier in his career, he would make aggressive, crowd-pleasing attacks, often to the dismay of his sport directors and teammates. As he’s grown wiser, he knows where and when to attack to win, and in today’s peloton, that usually means playing a waiting game. And when he finally reached an elusive Tour de France podium in 2015, Valverde didn’t attack once. All he did was follow wheels all the way to Paris to finish third overall. Valverde wins a lot because he has the experience to know when to move in just about every race he starts.
6. Winning big — but not that big
And finally, all of Valverde’s victories this spring seem to pass the “sniff test.” There hasn’t been one victory that seems so outrageous to challenge our sense of propriety. It’s not as if he attacked solo from La Redoute to win Liège or won the Vuelta al País Vasco by five minutes. In fact, he won Ruta del Sol by one second, and the Basque Country tour by 17 seconds, each time ahead of Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), another successful 30-something. The Catalunya victory was at a more comfortable 1:03 (also ahead of Contador) despite Movistar being penalized in the team time trial. And in the Ardennes, Valverde’s wins came with lethal, perfectly timed finishing attacks.
So how does it all add up?
To get our heads around Valverde, two things must be considered: First, it must be acknowledged that Valverde served a two-year ban, and while we might not know the when and the where (Valverde never made a tell-all confession), the DNA-linked bag that was part of the Operation Puerto booty helps us guess the how. And since he returned to the peloton, he’s also been subject to the same battery of doping controls that the entire peloton faces, and even more so, because he wins so frequently. If we don’t accept the effectiveness and deterrence of the anti-doping apparatus, then the peloton still has a very serious problem.
There’s another factor that’s just as important. Valverde is one of those rare outliers of cycling talent — the one percent of the one-percenters. Valverde is like Messi slamming home the winning goal, or like LeBron James dribbling his way out of a fix. Valverde seems born to race a bike, and this spring he’s hit the absolute peak of his powers. He’s not coming out of the blue. These are all races he’s won and challenged for victory, year-in and year-out, with a big target on his back and pressure that comes with being a favorite.
Would he risk doping? Who knows, but the fallout would be incalculable. Not only would he banned for life and see his reputation in tatters, but it would likely sink his entire team (we don’t know the details of Movistar’s sponsorship deal, but most contracts have an escape clause for doping cases). And it would be a massive blow for the credibility that cycling has slowing clawed back over the past decade. While there are still doping cases, and there’s no question that some teams and riders push the ethical line — look no further than the TUE scandal brewing in the UK right now — there hasn’t been a major, full-blown doping scandal involving a big star or major team in nearly a decade.
There are plenty of tests to prove a rider is doping, but until there is a test to prove that they are not, well, the only fair thing to do is accept and cheer the victories equally across the peloton. I’m not sticking my hands in the fire for anyone, but I’m not going to throw anyone into a bonfire, either.
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