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Valverde looks ready for classics

‘Balaverde’ relishing anticipation of Ardennes showdown against Gilbert

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Alejandro Valverde has notched two stage races and two big wins in his comeback from his two-year ban.

The Movistar captain looks to be nearing top form with the spring classics looming and should be counted among the favorites for victory in the hilly Ardennes races in Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege later this spring.

“This is an important victory for me because the team was supporting me all day,” Valverde said after Tuesday’s win. “It gives me confidence that I am in good condition going into the season’s first major goals.”

“Balaverde” kicked to a morale-boosting stage win in his comeback race at the Tour Down Under last month, coming in at the same time in the GC as eventual winner Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge).

Barely a month later, Valverde surged to his second win of the year in Tuesday’s second stage of the Ruta del Sol in the 144.7km hilly course from Málaga to the Sanctuario de Araceli de Lucena in Córdoba. The short, but steep uphill finish was eerily similar to the two Ardennes classics that he already won pre-ban.

That victory gives him two wins in the two stage races he’s started this year, given that the hilly race he was targeting at the Mallorca Challenge, a series of one-day races, was snowed out in early February.

On Wednesday, Oscar Freire (Katusha) won the third stage, meaning if Valverde can defend his 3-second lead to Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) tomorrow, he can claim his first stage-win victory since the 2010 Tour de Romandie, a race that was erased off his palmares when CAS handed down his two-year after blood bags linked him to Operación Puerto ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Valverde says the spring classics are his first major goal for the season and his early-season success will only bolster his confidence ahead of the prestigious one-day races.

Of course, winning a stage at Ruta del Sol in February that’s barely half the distance of Liege and taking down his rivals who will be in top shape in late April is something else altogether.

Valverde admits he won’t know how he can do until he’s deep into the race.

“The biggest worry I have is will I have the depth I need to be able to be strong at the end of racing six hours and more than 250km,” Valverde told in an interview last month. “From the tests and the training, I know I am in good condition, but training is one thing, racing is another.”

While Valverde’s apparent lack of openness about his Puerto links has rubbed some the wrong way — he refuses to directly answer queries about the case, saying only he’s served his time and he’s moving forward — there’s no doubt a return of a top-form Valverde will add some fireworks to the already explosive spring classics.

Many are anticipating a big showdown between Valverde and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) at such races as Fleche and Liege, both of which Valverde won before his ban (Fleche and Liege in 2006, Liege a second time in 2009).

Gilbert swept all three classics during Ardennes week last year and said he’s licking his chops to battle Valverde on battlegrounds such as the Mur de Huy and the Redboute climbs in the Ardennes.

“We will make a big show,” Gilbert said with a grin at the BMC training camp in Spain last month. “I was surprised to see how easy it was for him to win (at TDU). It’s a good sign he’s in shape. Am I am afraid of him? No. Valverde is a good rider and it will be good to race against him, but I am not afraid of him.”

Valverde, too, is relishing a chance to take a shot at Gilbert, who has emerged as king of the classics following his phenomenal performances the past two seasons.

“If Gilbert races like he did last year, he will be all but impossible to beat,” Valverde said. “It will be complicated to try to beat him, but that’s what we’re going to try to do. He’s the reference now in the spring classics and it motivates me to try to beat him.”

Valverde said he watched the spring classics last year with a sense of awe as Gilbert laid waste to the competition.

“He’s scary. When he attacks, you say ‘hasta luego’ and don’t see him again until the podium,” he said. “I hope to give him a fight. That’s what I have been working for.”

Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzué is certainly hoping Valverde will have the legs to contend for victory in the long, grueling courses across the Ardennes and Limburg regions.

“I believe that Alejandro will be back to his former level and there’s not reason to believe he will not be right in the middle of things in the classics,” Unzué said. “We hope Alejandro can reach his peak level in April. Then he will take a break and prepare for the Tour. There’s not doubt he will be a rider of reference during the classics, just as he was before.”

Valverde said the lure of regaining his spot as one of the top Ardennes riders prodded his motivation to train during his ban. Valverde posted more than 20,000km last year as he sat on the sidelines and counted the day for his return in January this year.

“Being away from racing was hard at first, but then I remembered what it was it like to stand on the podium of such races as Liege and I got right back to work,” Valverde said. “I want to get back to my former level. That’s what I have worked for during these past several months. My only doubt will be how my body reacts when the race hits 240km. I have trained my butt off, but you can never truly recreate race conditions no matter how hard you train.”

With two victories already in the bag, there’s no question that Valverde will be winning races this year. The only question is whether he’ll have the legs to win the six-hour distances of the classics. Gilbert might have something to say about that as well.