Valverde looks forward to Basque Country

Alejandro Valverde hopes to profit from Alberto Contador's absence at the Tour of the Basque Country.

Agence France Presse

Alejandro Valverde saddles up for the 50th Tour of the Basque Country Monday, hoping to benefit from the absence of two-time defending champion Alberto Contador.

Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) is a big favorite for the 900km race alongside compatriots Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre).

But he is less popular with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which hopes to make an Italian racing prohibition against Valverde worldwide in the coming weeks.

The Italian Olympic committee (CONI) banned Valverde from racing in Italy until May 10, 2011, saying a blood sample taken from the Spaniard during the Tour de France,when it passed through Italy in 2008 matched DNA from a blood bag seized during Spain’s Operación Puerto doping scandal, which erupted in May 2006.

CONI’s decision forced Valverde out of racing the 2009 Tour, which also made a brief foray into Italy, and that ban was confirmed on appeal two weeks ago by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS.

Cycling chiefs are waiting for CAS to rule on a UCI appeal protesting the fact the Spanish cycling federation did not open disciplinary proceedings against Valverde before deciding whether to extend his ban worldwide.

Meanwhile, the Spaniard continues to race outside Italy, and is looking forward to the six-stage race in the hilly Basque country, which could be spared the usual spells of rain. After five days of attacking and chasing in the hills, victory could finally come down to the last stage time trial, a 22km ride around Orio on Saturday.

“It’s a really attractive course, and it looks as though the weather could be with us as well,” said Valverde, who on Saturday finished runner-up to Rodriguez in the Grand Prix Miguel Indurain, held over 179km in Estella.

“That (result) has given me a solid base for the next week, and I’ll be trying to give it my very best.”

Rodriguez is one of the on-form Spanish riders of the moment, having won the 90th Tour of Catalonia last month.