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Without Valverde, it’s a different kind of worlds for Spain

Spain, seemingly a top contender for worlds every year, is in the rare position of riding without a big race favorite in Doha

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DOHA, Qatar (VN) — It’s worlds week, but one familiar face that’s always in the fight for the rainbow jersey isn’t here.

Perennial favorite Alejandro Valverde — who holds a record six world championship medals — is kicking up his heels in Spain after a long season that included racing in all three grand tours.

Due to the flat parcours in Qatar that favors pure sprinters, Valverde is staying home, leaving the Spanish team in an unfamiliar position of not riding for a top favorite for the win.

“This is a different worlds for the Spanish team this year,” said Spanish rider Imanol Erviti. “No Alejandro, no Purito [Joaquim Rodríguez], no Alberto [Contador]. This is an atypical course, and one’s that’s not very good for us.”

Spain brings Juanjo Lobato, who has punched into the top-10 at Milano-Sanremo, and Carlos Barbero, with Juan Ventoso as the lead out man, but everyone in Spain admits this course isn’t ideal for a country packed with skinny climbers and explosive puncheurs.

“It’s not a circuit that favors us, nor one that excites us,” said Spain’s coach Javier Minguez. “We don’t have many options if it comes down to a sprint, nor do we if it splits up. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to race, but we are realistic.”

With a half dozen major teams riding for their ace sprinters, it’s hard to imagine that the race won’t come down to at least a reduced bunch sprint. If that’s the case, Spain will be hard-pressed to punch into the top-10.

That’s unfamiliar territory for Spain, which has been the dominant nation over the past two decades in worlds competition. Beginning in 1995, with Abraham Olano’s world title in Colombia, Spain has won five world titles in a 21-year span, along with 10 other podium placings. In total, it’s earned 15 worlds podium finishes in that two-decade stretch, reaching the podium in 12 of those 21 years, with three occasions putting two riders into the medals in the same year.

After such brilliance, it’s as if these worlds mark an end of an era of incredible dominance and consistency by the Spanish team. Samuel Sánchez won an Olympic title in 2008 rider for the once invincible Spanish armada.

Along with Olano (who crossed the line with a puncture), Oscar Freire won a record-tying three world titles (1999, 2001, 2004) and Igor Astarloa won in 2003.The now-retired Joaquím Rodríguez pitched in as well, reaching the podium with third in 2009 and a heart-breaking second in 2013. Freire was also third in 2000, and even Miguel Induráin got in on the act, riding to silver behind Olano in Duitama.

It’s Valverde who’s picked up the most hardware, racking up six medals (silver in 2003 and 2005, and bronze in 2006 and three-straight 2012-14).

“Those six medals feel like a jersey for me. I wouldn’t trade them all in for one rainbow jersey,” Valverde said in a previous interview, before quickly adding. “Of course, I still hope to win the world title!”

Still going strong at 36, Valverde will likely be back next season in his long quest for the rainbow jersey.

“After being so many times on the podium, Alejandro deserves to win the world title,” Erviti said. “He is so consistent, he’s always there, battling for the win. Alejandro is a once in a lifetime rider. I hope he wins the rainbow jersey some day.”

It certainly won’t happen this year, and it appears that the sun is inevitably setting on Spain’s golden run in the worlds. There is some promising talent rising up, but none seem to have the luster of the likes of Valverde, Freire, and Rodríguez.