By Andrew Hood
Chances that Alejandro Valverde will repeat his 2006 victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège all depend on what the rain gods decide to do on Sunday.
If the peloton is drenched with rain and cold, he might finish even worse than 21st as he did in Flèche Wallonne. But if benevolent skies return, like he saw with a best-ever third at Amstel Gold Race last weekend under a warm Dutch sun, he’ll be in with a shot.
“I had good sensations at Amstel and scored my best result there ever, so that’s good reason to believe I’ll be good on Sunday,” Valverde told journalists Thursday. “We’ll see what the weather does.”
Unfortunately for Valverde, forecasters say there is a good chance of a repeat of Wednesday’s deluge, with sunny skies in the morning and building thunderstorms in the afternoon with brisk southwest winds. That means there would be cross-tailwinds in the decisive second half of the bumpy Liège finale.
On Wednesday, Valverde lost his kick when his legs froze up on the day’s final descent as temperatures dropped from upper 60s to mid-40s with still more one hour of racing.
“It was summer-time weather in shirt-sleeves and all of a sudden it just went to hell,” Valverde said. “I got very cold and the legs wouldn’t respond like the way I wanted them to.”
Rain or shine, he will line up Sunday as one of the five-star favorites even if he doesn’t believe it.
The Caisse d’Epargne rider ? who celebrates his 28th birthday on Friday ? calls himself a Liège outsider and says he’s not even close to top form because his goals come in the second half of the season.
“This year the spring classics are not a top goal for the season, but the truth is, I feel pretty good right now, so I am going to race to win,” Valverde said. “I’d love to win Sunday, but I am not 100 percent. My goals come in July, with the Olympics, the Vuelta and the worlds.”
Valverde’s goals are pretty ambitious: the podium at the Tour and gold medals at both the Olympics and worlds. The Vuelta will likely be dropped if he manages even one of all three of these goals.
So it’s easy to understand Valverde while he’s taking it a little easier during this week’s Ardennes week.
Spain’s “Green Bullet” also says the start of the 2008 season has been a lot more “tranquilo” than compared to the chaotic and tense season last year that saw him under the microscope for alleged links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal.
Though he managed to escape relatively unscathed, he admitted the media pressure and efforts by the UCI to keep him out of the world championships last fall weighed heavily.
“Last year was a series of circumstances that kept me from being my best on the bicycle in terms of training and other problems,” he said. “This year it’s calmer and I feel better on the bike. My head is calm and it’s helped me to be able to train better and focus on racing.”
Only time will tell if the Puerto story is finally put to bed. Valverde can only hope that the questions will all be about today and tomorrow.