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HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Alejandro Valverde was mobbed by Belgian fans Friday outside the Movistar bus before the start of E3 Harelbeke.
It’s not often the rabid Flemish fans see the sleek Spanish climber. In fact, except when the Tour de France passed through Belgium, Valverde has never raced on the roads of this part of western Belgium.
Valverde’s appearance in Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and Friday’s Harelbeke is part of an experiment to familiarize the skinny Spanish climber with the punishing pounding of the pavé that awaits in this summer’s Tour.
Valverde made it safely to Waregem on Wednesday, crossing the line 36th. Barring disaster Friday, Movistar officials said they were satisfied with their decision to race in Belgium.
“I am content with my performance on the cobblestones the other day, but today will be more difficult, and we will try to get through the day,” Valverde told Sporza before the start of Harelbeke. “It was important to come here to see the cobbles.”
Added Movistar sport director José Luis Jaimerena in an interview with VeloNews: “There is not a doubt that it was a good experience. The most important thing was to know the feeling of racing on the pavé. He passed the exam with honor.”
As he said earlier this year, Valverde wanted to compete in at least two races on the cobblestones. On Monday, Valverde and some teammates will preview the cobblestone sections that will be used during stage 5 in this year’s Tour.
“We wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to race and to see the pavé to be a little more comfortable with what he will face in July,” Jaimerena continued. “He’s a veteran, and he’s faced just about everything in his career, but he never raced on the cobblestones, so it was more than well worth it.”
Valverde is betting everything on the Tour this year, and wants to prepare the best way he possibly can.
With many of the top GC contenders racing at the Volta a Catalunya in Spain, Valverde decided instead to head north into the unknown.
Like many of the skinny climbers, Valverde avoids the cobblestones like the plague. He’s raced often in Belgium, but usually on the steep hills of the Ardennes in eastern Belgium, where he is an annual protagonist in the Ardennes classics.
Above all, Valverde wants to avoid a repeat of last year’s Tour, when he lost a shot at the podium with a costly mechanical that opened the door for Nairo Quintana to take over leadership at Movistar.
“It will give him a bit more confidence on this decisive day,” Jaimerena said. “Of course, anything could happen that day, a puncture or crash, but this experiment will allow us to go to the pavé without so much uncertainty.”
Valverde has enjoyed a strong start to the 2014 season, winning two stages and the overall at the Vuelta a Murcia, with victory at Roma Maxima and third at Strade Bianche.
He hopes to keep the ball rolling at the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Ardennes classics before taking a break prior to a final run to the Tour, with a start in either the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse.
Nerves will continue to build toward July and the cobblestones, and Valverde wants to overcome the hurdle without losing chances for the podium.
“It’s a day that you must overcome without setbacks,” Jaimerena said. “As everyone knows, the Tour can be lost in a moment. We hope it’s not that day.”