By Andrew Hood
Less is more for Alejandro Valverde in 2009, at least that’s what Caisse d’Epargne is banking on as Spain’s best all-rounder takes aim for the Tour de France podium.
With the idea of goal of peaking during July, Valverde will race less with the hopes of a big payoff on the Champs-Elysées.
“I’ve decided to focus everything on the Tour,” Valverde said during the team’s presentation Thursday in Paris. “I’ll arrive in Monaco with less kilometers in my legs, but with more experience, which counts for something, too.”
By his own admission, Valverde has done just about everything cycling has to offer at the professional level except seriously contend for the GC at the Tour de France.
Spain’s “Balaverde” has won world championship medals, major classics and dozens of smaller stage races and one-day events across Europe, but so far, the Tour has proven more elusive for Caisse d’Epargne’s prolific winner.
“I’ve already demonstrated that I am a winner of the classics. I’ve won some of the most important ones on the calendar,” Valverde said. “But there’s also the grand tours. I’ve always finished in the top 10. I’ve never won one, but I have to keep trying.”
Last year, Valverde climbed to ninth in the Tour for his second-straight top 10. If it wasn’t for his struggles over the Pryénées, he might have come even closer to the podium.
Conventional wisdom says that Valverde has come into recent Tours with too many racing days in his legs and he eventually fades in the mountains, much like he saw last year when he faded over the Tourmalet and lost nearly six minutes to stage-winner Leonardo Piepoli (who later tested positive for CERA).
So Caisse d’Epargne will not put any pressure on Valverde in the first half of the season.
“The goal is to reach the podium this year in the Tour with Alejandro,” said sport director Eusebio Unzue. “Alejandro will have the first part of the calendar before the Tour without objectives and more relaxed, to arrive in the best possible conditions, with having had much pressure.”
Valverde’s first stage race won’t come until the Volta a Catalunya in May, followed by the Dauphiné Libéré (which he won in 2008) and then the Tour.
The new “spring light” program hopes to deliver Valverde fresh enough and yet strong enough to battle for the podium in July.
Pereiro backThe Spanish-based, French-sponsored team isn’t forgetting about Oscar Pereiro, the 2006 Tour winner who’s returning to form following his harrowing crash in last year’s Tour that left him battered and busted up.
Pereiro already debuted his season at the Tour Down Under earlier this month after five months off the bikes to recover from his 20-foot fall off a switchback coming down the Col Agnel.
“Now I value things more. I’m lucky to be here with the best team in the world and to have a second chance after the crash I had,” Pereiro said. “I don’t want to let the opportunity slip by. I feel better than ever at this time of the season.”
Just so he won’t forget that fateful day, Pereiro has tattooed the name of the Italian climb where he crashed on his arm.
Pereiro said he’s ready to support Valverde without forgetting his own options.
“Alejandro has made a huge bet on the Tour,” he said. “I will try to be up front with him, but my objective is to be once again 100 percent, just like I was when I fell last year.”
Few changesMore than ever, Valverde and Pereiro will carry the weight of Caisse d’Epargne in the grand tours.
Only five new riders join the team for 2009, with Andrey Amado from Costa Rica, Spanish rider Angel Madrazo, Rui Costa of Portugal, Arnold Jeannesson of France and Vasil Kiryienka, a Russian from Tinkoff. Vladimir Karpets, who left the team to move to Katusha, is the major departure.
Beyond the Tour hopes with Valverde and Pereiro, the team can count on the continued progress of several of its developing riders.
Luís León Sánchez, winner of a breakout stage in last year’s Tour, classics rider Joaquím Rodríguez, GC contender David Arroyo and sprinter José Rojas are all expected to help fill the void left by Valverde’s obsession with the Tour.
“The Tour is our principal objective, but with a lineup as big as ours, we’re going to dispute all the races with someone,” Unzue said. “We’ll strive for the maximum in the Tour and try to live up to our success of last year with other riders of the team.”
Caisse d’Epargne for 2009
Chente García Acosta
Luis León Sánchez