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Valverde to tackle at least one cobbled race ahead of Tour de France

Spaniard is planning to start E3 Harelbeke and preview the cobbles included in the 2014 Tour's key fifth stage

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MADRID (VN) — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is plotting a bumpy road ahead of the 2014 Tour de France, literally.

The Spanish veteran will race at least one northern classic, most likely E3 Harelbeke, to become better acquainted with the cobblestones in anticipation of the decisive stage in the Tour’s first week.

“I’ve never raced on the cobbles before, so with the stage being an important one in the Tour this year, we are planning on racing in Belgium a bit this year,” Valverde told VeloNews. “We’ll probably race Harelbeke, to become more familiar with what to expect.”

Tour organizers have included pavé in the Tour for the first time since 2010, with 15.4 kilometers of the bumpy stuff spread over nine sectors in the 154km fifth stage.

Valverde, who was in Madrid on Thursday as part of a ceremony to award the UCI WorldTour best team prize to Movistar, said he knows the fifth stage across the cobblestones will be important in the 2014 Tour.

“On the cobbles, it’s more about luck than anything,” he said. “I’ve had plenty of bad luck at the Tour over the years, so I want to try to avoid it this year. So that’s why we’re going to Belgium, to avoid any surprises.”

Valverde certainly won’t be starting Harelbeke to win. He rarely ventures north, and when he does, it’s to the other side of Belgium for the hilly, narrow paved roads in the Ardennes.

“The Ardennes remains part of my schedule. I’ve always done well there, and it’s an important part of my calendar,” he said. “The schedule remains similar to last year, but with these extra days to examine the cobblestones.”

Though Valverde said he will likely only start one cobbled race in Belgium, he and key Movistar teammates will train over the cobbled sections to be featured in the Tour for a few days.

“I raced last year at Strade Bianche, and I really enjoyed it, but that is on gravel roads, not cobbles,” Valverde said. “The most important is to become more familiar with the cobblestones. Once the race is on, it’s sometimes a question of luck. The idea is to pass this stage without any setbacks.”

As Valverde mentioned, his racing calendar will largely remain the same from 2013, with an early-season focus on the spring classics, following by the closing season trio of the Tour, Vuelta a España, and world championships.

Valverde will debut at the Mallorca Challenge and race the Ruta del Sol in February in Spain. Next, he will race his hometown event, the Vuelta a Murcia before Strade Bianche and perhaps Roma Maxima.

Then it will be Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya, or perhaps a start in Tirreno-Adriatico, with a trip squeezed into Belgium before the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Ardennes classics.

There is some overlap between some of those dates, and Valverde said the team still needs to plot out his exact spring schedule.

After a break, he will reload at the Critérium du Dauphiné ahead of the Tour, Vuelta, and worlds.

“I did more or less the same schedule this year, and I came out of the season feeling pretty well. It’s perfect for me,” he said. “You have to race the Vuelta to be competitive for the worlds. Whether I race the Vuelta to challenge for the overall or just to win stages remains to be seen.”

For Valverde, who turns 34 in April, this year’s shot at the Tour could be his last. With the rise of teammate Nairo Quintana, who will likely race the Giro d’Italia to win, Valverde will have one last run at leading Movistar outright.

“Something always seems to happen at the Tour, whether it’s a crash, or bad luck, or something,” said Valverde, who fell out of contention in July after a badly timed mechanical in a windy stage 13. “Last year, I came out of the Pyrénées in great position [second overall], but I had a mechanical at the worst possible moment on the worst possible stage. That’s racing.”

Valverde admited he regrets how the 2013 Tour unfolded, because he believes he had a podium in his legs. Quintana saved the day for the team, finishing second overall and winning a stage along with the climber’s and young rider’s jerseys, while Valverde still managed to ride to eighth despite losing 10 minutes and all hope for the podium on stage 13.

If he can ride all the way to Paris unhampered by bad luck and crashes, how far can he go?

“The podium,” Valverde said confidently. “I know I am capable of the podium. This year’s Tour favors me, especially with the final and only time trial coming on the penultimate stage. That favors less the specialists and more riders who have good form. To beat (Chris) Froome? Well, if he is like he was this year, it will be difficult, but every Tour starts anew. We will aim for the podium and see what happens.”

First, Valverde has to make it over the cobblestones.