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Valverde’s bucket list long on unfinished business

Alejandro Valverde's career is full of victories and accolades, but he's missing a few pieces of his puzzle.

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PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — For everything that Alejandro Valverde has already won, he’s still hungry for more.

At the ripe age of 36, he recently signed on for three more years with Movistar. At the end of his latest contract in 2019, he’ll be nearly 40 years old. Simply put, Valverde says he races for the love of the sport.

“I still enjoy the bike,” he said. “I take pleasure in training, in racing, and I still feel fresh. So why not keep going? There’s no reason to stop, so long as I have my health. The ambition is still there.”

You’d think for a rider who’s won 14 stages as well as reached the podium across all three grand tours (with one overall victory, in the 2009 Vuelta a España), there might not be much to check off his personal to-do list.

Everyone close to Valverde insists the Spaniard is of a different mold.

“Like any big champion, he’s got that hunger to win,” said Rory Sutherland, who rode both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España with Valverde. “He’s a straightforward guy to race for. He wants to be first across the line in just about every race he goes to.”

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The so-called “Bala” (bullet in Spanish) has won nearly 80 races, a huge number for a rider who is not a sprinter. And those Ws have come in some of the sport’s biggest and most prestigious events. Two times a winner at the Critérium du Dauphiné, once at the Volta a Catalunya, and four times at the Ruta del Sol. He’s won Liège-Bastogne-Liège three times, Flèche Wallonne four times, and other major one-days such as GP Miguel Indurain, Roma Maxima, and the Clásica San Sebastián twice. Add a record six world championship medals, two national road titles, plus two ProTour and two WorldTour titles to the haul, and Valverde’s trophy shelf is pretty full.

Yet his Movistar manager say he’s showing no signs of slowing down or resting on his laurels.

“Valverde keeps getting better with age,” said Movistar’s Eusebio Unzué. “He is a guarantee in almost any race he starts. With his experience, he can help Nairo [Quintana] and guide a new generation, all without forgetting his own ambitions.”

Going into 2017, Valverde will turn the page on his grand tour GC aspirations and revert to the more animating role as stage-hunter and super lieutenant for Quintana. That means he’ll have more freedom to attack in such races as the Tour and Vuelta, and go all-in for the major one-day races on the calendar.

Looking ahead to next season, Valverde says there is still plenty of unfinished business.

For someone as accomplished as Valverde, his “bucket list” is still quite long going into what are likely his three final seasons. He admits he’ll never win the Tour de France or a race like Paris-Roubaix, but there are plenty of other major races that have slipped through his fingers for one reason or another.

1. Amstel Gold Race: Twice second

Of all the major one-days, this one bothers Valverde the most. The hilly, technical course, with its punchy finale up the Cauberg, is tailor-made for his qualities. He’s raced it 10 times, and except for not finishing his first start in 2002, he’s never been out of the top 25. He’s been knocking at the door of victory, with a third in 2008 and a second in 2013 and 2015. Almost more than any race on his wish list, it’s somewhat surprising Amstel Gold is right near the top. Why? He wants to round out the Ardennes treble.

Valverde: “It’s a race that I like very much, and one that I think I should have won already at least once. I’ve done well in the Ardennes races, so I really want to win Amstel one year.”

His chances in 2017: Very good. Amstel’s new finish line, moved a few years ago to a little more than 1 kilometer past the Cauberg summit, makes for a trickier finale. Valverde has lost Amstel Gold for following the wrong wheels or being out of position. Unlike Flèche, where there is an established point to attack on the Mur de Huy, the dynamic finale up and over the Cauberg can lead to miscalculations. There’s no doubt he has the legs to win each April when he roars into the Ardennes. It’s a question of everything falling into place on the day.

2. World championship: Six medals, no rainbow

Valverde boasts an impeccable worlds palmares. In 11 starts, he’s only twice finished outside the top 10 (57th in 2007 in Stuttgart, and 37th in 2008 in Varese). Twice runner-up — he was second in his first worlds in Canada in 2003 and second again in Madrid in 2005 — and four times third, Valverde holds a record six worlds medals. None of them are gold, but he seems at peace with his impressive worlds record, once saying he wouldn’t trade those six podiums for one rainbow jersey. He doesn’t hide the fact that he wants to win a world title.

Valverde: “Of course, I want to win the world title. I wouldn’t trade my worlds medal for anything, because they are all important to me. The course next year in Norway looks more demanding. Let’s see if we can be there to try to win after coming so close so many times.”

His chances in 2017: Fairly good. The Bergen worlds course will be lumpy enough to lure Valverde back to the worlds, and he’s a perennial favorite on any demanding course. He passed on Doha not only because he completed all three grand tours, but because the flat parcours was not to his liking. Bergen’s circuit will feature plenty of punchy terrain to give Valverde just the kind of course he needs to win that elusive rainbow jersey. Austria in 2018 and Yorkshire in 2019 will also likely deliver demanding worlds courses, so Valverde could have three more cracks at the world title.

3. Giro di Lombardia: Twice runner-up

The Italian monument is another thorn in Valverde’s side. In seven career starts, he’s never been worse than 12th (not counting 39th in his first attempt in 2003 and a DNF in 2006), and finished runner-up in 2013 and 2014. After falling short of victory in his Giro debut, Lombardia remains Valverde’s most realistic chance for a big win on Italian roads.

Valverde: “This is another race that I have been close a few times, and the victory escaped me. It’s a beautiful race, with a lot of history, and one that I would love to win someday.”

His chances in 2017: Fair to good. End-of-season legs are key to win Lombardia, and Valverde should be able to find the motivation to keep racing into October next year, especially if he’s skipping the Giro and reverting to his Tour-Vuelta combination.

4. Tour of Flanders: Unknown challenge

In 24 career starts among the five monuments, there are two that he’s never raced: Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The latter he admits he’ll likely never even try, but the former is one that is on his radar. A planned debut in 2016 was scuttled at the last minute because his early-season form was looking so good that the team didn’t want to risk his run across the Ardennes or his approach to his Giro d’Italia debut this year.

Valverde: “Roubaix? Well, I may never even start that one. Flanders is another story, and it’s a race that I find a unique challenge. It’s a race that could suit me. I don’t want to retire without racing it at least once.”

His chances in 2017: Low. First off, he needs to race Flanders to have a chance to win. Second, it’s rare that anyone wins Flanders on their first crack. The race is unique at various levels, and even a rider as experienced and savvy as Valverde will find the challenges of Flanders a bit overwhelming. Riders spend their entire careers trying to unravel the Flanders code, so he’d need to race it once just to get the feel of the race in his legs before having a serious chance of winning.

5. Milano-Sanremo: A sprint too far

Sanremo was Valverde’s first monument, racing it for the first time in his rookie season all the way back in 2002, finishing anonymously in the pack in 130th. The hilly, fast parcours would seem to favor his fast finishing speed, at least on paper, but he’s never truly been in the hunt for victory in the Italian classic. He raced four of five editions through 2006, never even punching into the top 20. After nearly a decade away, he returned in 2015, finishing a then career-best 20th, only to top that this year with a 15th.

Valverde: “It is race that I think I can do better. To win is complicated, because it’s a challenging race and one that’s better suited for the pure sprinters. Maybe we can keep trying.”

His chances in 2017: Low. As the longest and most frenetic of the monuments, Sanremo is once again in the dominion of the sprinters after organizers reverted to the “classic” course, with only the Cipressa and Poggio to slow down the pack. Late-race attacks rarely hold to the line, so Valverde would need to have the horsepower to follow attacks over the top of the Poggio and then win a reduced-bunch sprint. That’s a big ask in a race packed with fast finishers.