By Andrew Hood
Alejandro Valverde faces an uncertain future following his breakthrough win at the Vuelta a España on Sunday in Madrid.
Known as El Imbatido (the unbeaten one) since his amateur days, Valverde finally won a grand tour after finishing second, third, fourth and fifth in the Vuelta. But the victory that should lead the way to more success could simply be an empty triumph ahead of what is anything but clear sailing for the 29-year-old Spanish rider.
Valverde finally faces a battle he might not be able to win by simply spinning his pedals. Allegations that he has links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal, dating back to 2006, could spell a rocky road ahead for the prolific Spaniard.
Since May, Valverde has been banned for two years from racing in Italy. Yet in one of cycling’s most nagging inconsistencies, he is cleared to race the world championships in Switzerland this weekend, just as he had the green light to race the Vuelta.
Valverde’s legal team has appealed the ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing that the Italian federation lacks the jurisdiction to impose a disciplinary sanction on a Spanish rider.
If Valverde wins that appeal, the coast could be clear and “Balaverde” can kick-start his dream of winning the Tour de France.
Yet if he loses, the UCI could use the decision as a trigger to extend the Italy-only ban to anywhere in the world.
Racing ban universal?
Perhaps ironically, one of the main reasons that Valverde won this year’s Vuelta is because he couldn’t race the Tour de France.
Valverde was more focused, better prepared and had a stronger team than ever, and the first person he should thank for his Vuelta victory is Italian anti-doping crusader Ettore Torri of CONI.
When Italian authorities slapped a two-year ban on Valverde over what they say is irrefutable proof that links him to the Puerto scandal, that meant he wouldn’t be able to race the Tour this summer. The route briefly crossed Italian soil as part of the 15th stage from Switzerland to France.
Denied a shot at the Tour, Valverde focused completely on preparing for the Vuelta.
“It was easy. I forgot about everything else and trained for my new objective,” he said. “I isolated myself from all the other problems and concentrated on the Vuelta.”
Most of the rivals he would face in the Vuelta — with the lone exception of Samuel Sánchez, who also skipped the Tour — carried some extra fatigue into the Vuelta after racing the Tour.
Valverde, by contrast, was tanned, rested and ready.
A Spanish non-inquisition
Valverde’s Italian troubles began in 2008. Long rumored to be among the code names of riders on the Puerto list was the tag “Valv.Piti,” and the Italians were quite clever about devising ways to try to prove it.
Part of their zeal may stem from the fact that when the Puerto bomb dropped into the laps of the Spanish courts in 2006, it pretty much stayed there.
Spanish laws on the books at the time of the police raids on the residences and labs of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes on May 23, 2006, only allowed the presiding judge to apply a very narrow definition of illegality: whether Fuentes and company had endangered public health.
With 100 or so blood pouches properly labeled and refrigerated, judge Antonio Serrano ruled that Fuentes didn’t break any existing laws.
Months later, the Spanish congress passed a much-stricter anti-doping law that would have brought the house down on the Puerto party with bans, sanctions and exile to the North Pole, but it couldn’t be retroactively applied.
Stone-walled by Spanish courts and frustrated that Italian star Ivan Basso served a Puerto ban but all Spanish riders had skated free, Italian officials from CONI saw the perfect opportunity when the 2008 Tour dipped into Italy.
Hours after the summit finish at Prato Nevoso, Italian anti-doping authorities visited the Caisse d’Epargne hotel and extracted blood samples from Valverde. Using a court order, they obtained access to blood bags confiscated by Spanish police as part of the Puerto raids in May 2006.
Led by Torri, Italian authorities say they were able to match Valverde’s blood to one of the infamous pouches found in offices used by Fuentes. For them, that was proof enough that Valverde was a Fuentes client. The result was a two-year racing ban that applied to Italian competition — and with its dip into Italy on stage 15, to the Tour de France.
More trouble in Italy?
Valverde may yet have more trouble with Italy as he lines up as one of the favorites for the rainbow jersey at the world championships this weekend in Mendrisio.
While the race is being run in southern Switzerland, in the Italian-speaking Ticino region, the Spanish national team’s hotel is in Italy. The reservation was made months before the Italians banned Valverde, and it’s too late for Spanish officials to try to find a new hotel.
Could the Italians create more hassles for Valverde? Spanish officials say they hope not.
“Valverde won’t be racing in Italy so there shouldn’t be any trouble. He’s banned from racing, but they cannot stop him from going there,” one Spanish official told VeloNews. “Who knows what the Italians will do? We hope they don’t make any trouble for Alejandro.”
CAS decision in the fall
So far, Valverde has deferred comment on the Italian ban, preferring to let his legal team handle his case.
Representing Valverde is José Rodriguez, a Spanish lawyer who has been kept busy the past few years working on doping cases involving Roberto Heras, Iban Mayo and Floyd Landis. Most recently he signed on to represent Mikel Astarloza, who tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition control before this year’s Tour.
So far, the defense has not centered on whether Valverde worked with Fuentes, but rather on whether Italians have jurisdiction to sanction a Spanish rider. CAS is expected to announce its decision sometime this fall.
If CAS upholds the Italian ban, it’s assumed that Valverde would likely face a worldwide ban. The UCI already tried in vain to keep Valverde out of the 2007 worlds based on alleged Puerto links, but CAS ruled then to allow Valverde to compete.
Despite the mounting pressure, Valverde has every intention of racing the world championships on Sunday. And he’s not losing any sleep over it, at least not right now.
“Respect to a (CAS decision), I don’t think about it,” Valverde said. “When that day arrives, then I’ll worry about it.”
“That day” could come when Valverde is already crowned as the Vuelta winner — and perhaps the world champion.
Follow Andrew Hood’s twitter at twitter.com/eurohoody