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Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), 29, after Toledo time trial, on his way to win his first Grand Tour
Madrid victory beckons for the Murcian rider, but questions linger
In essence, this Vuelta has proved that there are two different Valverdes. The pre-2009 version was an explosive rider, one who scooped victories throughout the year, who nabbed stages in Grand Tours but who always fell apart on at least one day during a three week race.
This year's version is a rider who has become more of a mathematician, one who calculates his effort to remain consistent throughout. Alejandro Valverde, 29, previously had a smattering of Grand Tour stages but no overall victory; today, he'll win the Vuelta a España without taking any stages at all. In fact, it's a formula he followed during his victorious 2009 Vuelta a Burgos and Dauphiné Libéré campaigns, too.
"It is true I changed my strategy a bit for this race," he told the media after the stage twenty time trial. "We tried to save energy throughout the Vuelta. If you look at my stage race victories this year, at the Dauphiné and Burgos, I won the overall GC without any stages. That is a good strategy to save energy and it happened the same way in this race.
"With the compensation of winning the general classification, it wasn't much to give up."
Back in 2005, he made his Tour de France debut and beat Lance Armstrong and others to triumph at the summit finish of Courchevel. At the time Armstrong was praising in his assessment. "With Valverde, everybody has seen the future of cycling," he said. "He's fast, he's strong, he's intelligent. It's impressive."
However, the expected run as a serious Tour contender failed to materialise. He pulled out of that year's race due to a knee injury and then crashed out the following year. Second overall in the Vuelta brought a degree of compensation, but Valverde weakened towards the end and lost out to Alexander Vinokourov.
The 2007 and 2008 Tours also saw periods of fragility. He was sixth in the first of those, then took his first yellow leader's jersey in last year's race when he won the opening stage. He also triumphed on stage six, yet faded to end the race ninth overall and was also only fifth in the Vuelta a España.
Hence the reinvention this year. His programme was tailored towards peaking only for the Tour de France, forgoing Classic wins. When he was blocked from riding the French race (see sidebar), he built up instead for his home tour. He perhaps benefiting from having more reserves. A more conservative approach during the race helped ensure that he avoided his traditional bad day, and will head into the final stage with a comfortable 55-second advantage over Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
First Grand Tour success
No changes are expected on the stage to Madrid, and so he accepted his victory yesterday. "I am very happy, very relieved, as I really wanted to win a Grand Tour," he said. "I believed it could be possible, with luck, but also knew it would be very complicated and difficult. This year I had a great team around me, one which helped keep my concentration and motivation during the whole race.
"Once I couldn't go to the Tour, I wanted to win the Vuelta a España. I trained hard for that, worked very hard in August to get ready and stayed focussed on that.
"This Vuelta was very hard. There were a lot of mountains and summit finishes, but I was not worrying about having a bad day. Maybe my success this time was because I focussed so much on staying concentrated and recovering."
In truth, the only point that Valverde looked like he might crack was one week ago, La Pandera, on the last summit finish of this year's race. He showed weakness early on, yet rallied near the summit and ultimately took time out of most of his main rivals.
"Probably the worst moment of the Vuelta was the beginning of the Pandera climb," he continued. "But it is also true that I recovered a lot, I kept concentrated and motivated until the end and finally the climb was very good for me."
He ended that day 31 seconds ahead of Dutchman Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and 1:10 up on Samuel Sánchez and, with no more mountaintop finishes to be negotiated, said that evening that the race was 70 percent won. Those percentages had been boosted by the time lost one day earlier by Australian Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), who punctured at a crucial moment and never returned. The loss there meant that he had gone from second overall, seven seconds back, to 1:33 behind in fifth overall.
One week later, he expressed confidence that he would have won anyway. "It is also true that he tried to return to the group but couldn't get back any time. That said, without the flat tyre, he would have been much closer until the end. But sport is like that, it was bad luck and that's it.
"With or without that flat tyre, our strategy probably wouldn't have changed. Cadel was behind overall and our goal [before his puncture] was to keep him at the same time, to never to give him a chance to take time back."
In life, the key to continued success is often to set new goals. Valverde has always been an ambitious rider and yesterday said that he was already looking at other targets for himself. "Before, I won Classics and week-long stage races. Now I've taken this and I want to win the Tour de France and the World Championships.
"For sure it will be very, very difficult to win a Tour. It is always very difficult to win any Grand Tour. But I believe that after winning a very hard Vuelta, I really think I can go for the podium, and why not win?"
Before then, he will head to Mendrisio, Switzerland, aiming to improve on his two silver medals in the World Championship. Taking the Vuelta-Worlds double is hugely difficult and has not been achieved in recent decades.
Valverde will try to buck that trend, and sees it coming down to a fight between two nations. "It is always a big battle between Spain and Italy. Especially now after seeing the level of [Damiano] Cunego, he will probably be the strongest guy during the worlds."
The elephant in the room
Although Valverde faced many questions during yesterday's press conference, the Spanish media appeared entirely supportive of the rider. Only one journalist mentioned the looming shadow on the horizon; namely, his Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) court cases relating to Operación Puerto.
On May 11th the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) banned the Valverde from competing on Italian soil for two years. The ruling followed on from a matching by CONI of Valverde's DNA to blood bags seized during the 2006 Operación Puerto raids. If true, it would prove that he is indeed the rider code named Valv.Piti, and would therefore be liable for a ban of at least two years.
Prior to the start of the Tour de France, the International Cycling Union (UCI) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sought to convert the CONI ruling to a worldwide ban. They applied to the CAS against a Spanish federation decision not to examine the case. Yet, despite the fact that this action was lodged in June, CAS has indicated to Cyclingnews that is unlikely to be held until November.
Valverde's response to the subject being raised yesterday was predictably brief. "As regards November, I'm not thinking of it now."
While the rider is fully focussed on the matters at hand, the reality is that this Vuelta could quite possibly be his last Grand Tour in quite a while. If CAS clears him, his career will continue uninterrupted. If it decides in the favour of WADA and the UCI, he'll face a lengthy suspension.
Quite how this would affect his Vuelta win is uncertain for now. As it's a complex legal issue, the UCI would not immediately comment as to whether he could be stripped of this Grand Tour title.
Either way, a ban on the new Vuelta champion would be hugely embarrassing to the organisers and the Spanish federation, and would prompt further questions about how the whole Puerto case has lingered on for three years without any resolution.