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Valverde pulls plug on his comeback season

Movistar captain goes down with illness and will miss his shot a revenge on Philippe Gilbert in Italy

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Alejandro Valverde won’t have a chance to take revenge against Philippe Gilbert in tomorrow’s Giro di Lombardia. The Movistar captain, who botched last weekend’s battle up the Cauberg against the Belgian, has succumbed to a chest cold and will not race the season-closer in Italy.

Valverde was still fuming at his missed chance at claiming the rainbow jersey last weekend and hoped to become the first Spaniard to win Lombardia, but he fell ill over the past few days with fever.

The world championship bronze medalist was forced to stop training Wednesday and Movistar officials confirmed Friday that Valverde would not be up for racing in the season’s final major race. Juanjo Cobo and Sergio Pardilla replace Valverde and Andrey Amador, who was injured during the Gran Piemonte yesterday.

Gilbert (BMC Racing) is five-star favorite to win Lombardia following his stunning victory Sunday up the Cauberg to claim the world title.

Valverde, however, was hoping to take revenge against Gilbert following Sunday’s disappointment in the Limburg.

Spain’s worlds strategy was built around racing for the sprint with Oscar Freire, but when Gilbert uncorked his race-winning move, Valverde was caught between a rock and a hard place.

Following team orders, he hesitated to follow Gilbert, even though he appeared to have the legs to do so. When he looked back to see Freire faltering and looked ahead to see the medals riding away, Valverde made the split-second decision to follow.

Valverde saved Spain’s honor with a bronze medal, but Freire was frustrated at the finish line Sunday, venting against Valverde for not following team orders and leaving him isolated. Freire, a three-time world champion, could only muster 10th in the final race of his career.

Valverde was equally frustrated, because he believes that if he had had freedom to follow Gilbert, he might have come away with his first rainbow jersey.

“It’s a medal for Spain, so I am content, but maybe it could have turned out differently,” Valverde said last weekend. “Gilbert got a big jump on everyone. It was a complicated situation. (Edvald) Boasson Hagen and (Alexandr) Kolobnev were ahead. Freire was behind. Maybe I could have won if I had gone after Gilbert earlier.”

With his illness over the past few days, Valverde won’t have a chance to try to put an exclamation point on a remarkable comeback season from his two-year ban for links to the Operación Puerto blood doping ring.

Unlike Alberto Contador, who only missed six months of full-on racing as part of his two-year, backdated clenbuterol ban, Valverde served a full, two-year sanction. Before this year’s Tour Down Under, his last race was his ninth-place ride in the 2009 road worlds following overall victory in that year’s Vuelta a España.

Yet Valverde defied expectations and came out guns blazing, winning a stage at the Tour Down Under in January. He then won two stages and the overall at the Ruta del Sol in February, and followed that up in March with a stage, third place overall and the points jersey at Paris-Nice.

A crash knocked him out of the Volta a Catalunya and he was flat across the Ardennes classics, unable to strike any major results in the hilly spring classics that were his first major goal of the season.

The Tour de France was also a disappointment, with Valverde quietly hoping for a shot at the final podium. A pair of costly crashes in the first week knocked him out of contention, though he saved his race with a stage 17 victory in the Pyrénées.

Valverde also raced the Olympics and rode into the winning breakaway, crossing the line in London in 18th place, but far removed from the medals.

A last-minute start at the Vuelta proved a wise choice. Not only did he win two individual stages, he helped the team win the team time trial as well as the team prize. Valverde finished second to Contador and won the points jersey.

All in all, it was an impressive season for Valverde, who promises he’s racing clean.

“I am satisfied with my season. What was most important is that I was able to race at the same level as I did before,” he said during the Vuelta. “The Tour didn’t go as planned, but the Vuelta more than made up for it. It’s a good season that we can build on for next year.”

Valverde, like all the Spanish mountain goats, is hoping the Tour de France serves up a more challenging, climb-heavy route for 2013. If so, he may well be back within podium range again at the French tour.

There’s still the unfinished business of the world title. With four career worlds medals — two silver and two bronze — he still hopes to don a rainbow jersey before retiring.

“The course in Italy (Florence in 2013) and Spain (Ponferrada in 2014) are both well suited for me, so I hope to have a chance to be the outright leader for the Spanish team,” Valverde said. “Of course, the world title is something I would like. I have come close before.”

And he knows he could have been even closer last weekend if Spanish tactics had been set out differently and more clearly. The team should have mimicked what the Belgians had in place: Gilbert to attack and Tom Boonen in reserve for the sprint.

When Spain put all of its eggs in Freire’s basket, it was Valverde who ended up with egg on his face simply by doing what his instincts were telling him. He’ll now have four months to wash up before he starts his 2013 campaign hungry.