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This year Alejandro Valverde rode his 14th season as a professional cyclist and enjoyed his most successful campaign to date with record-setting victories in the Ardennes Classics and that elusive Tour podium. Procycling investigates his remarkable longevity and versatility
He has the season-long consistency of Peter Sagan, and with his first Grand Tour stage wins and GC podium dating back to 2003, he has the longevity of Raymond Poulidor, too. He has a win rate that, back in the day, earned him the Jose Mourinho-like nickname of 'El Imbatido' – The Unbeaten One. His versatility, ranging from World Championship podiums and Ardennes Classics wins to triumphs in bunch sprints, time trials, Tour summit finishes and even a Vuelta a España GC in 2009, is arguably even more profound than the much-lauded diversity of Bradley Wiggins.
So why, when Alejandro Valverde took a fourth victory in the WorldTour rankings this October, as well as wins in Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège for a third time this April, did it all slip under the radar so quickly?
If in 2015 there were no podium finishes in the Vuelta or Lombardia or the Worlds for Valverde, like in 2014, nor a repeat of his stunning victory in the Clásica San Sebastián, it hardly seemed to register, either. But his Ardennes double, plus a second place in Amstel Gold, as well as Valverde's first ever podium finish in the Tour de France, were major landmarks in a career stretching back to 2002. In turn, these standout successes overshadowed a second National Championships road race title, as well as a last-gasp points jersey win in the Vuelta a España, where he also took a stage. Last but not least, only a crash kept Valverde from pushing Richie Porte, the stage racing giant of the first half of the season, much closer in the Volta a Catalunya. But there, even an injured Valverde nonetheless racked up three stage wins and second overall.
In fact, this has been Valverde's best season since his return from an Operación Puerto-related doping ban in 2012. That ban is a lingering blemish on his career that may well have something – but surely not everything – to do with the muted reaction to his latest successes.
Flèche Wallonne this April was arguably his finest win for years. Perfectly positioned at the foot of the Mur de Huy, from 500 metres out and all the way up the hardest part of the climb, Valverde led and controlled from the front of the pack, at a pace just too hard to allow any attacks to go clear. Then 100 metres from the top, the Spaniard produced his in-house speciality: on ultra steep climbs that are easing slightly in their closing metres like at Huy, Valverde excels at late, devastatingly powerful, accelerations. All this, three days short of his 35th birthday, and four days short of outpowering the small pack, despite his status of top favourite, at the Ans finishing straight in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Indeed, of the five Classics giants predicted to rule the roost in the spring of 2015 – Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Valverde – injuries, crashes, and/or lack of form meant that the Valverde was the only one who managed to live up to pre-season expectations. Now one of just six riders to have won Liège three or more times, Valverde is currently keeping some very distinguished company among the all-time cycling stars. He and 1950s Tour winner Ferdi Kübler are the only two riders to have done the Ardennes double twice. And no other rider can boast of such a long winning span; there are nine years between Valverde's first and last Liège victories, which is three more than his closest rivals, Eddy Merckx and Moreno Argentin.
Often slated as a tactical maladroit, Valverde is getting better with age. Although Amstel saw Valverde shooting himself in the foot when he failed to work with Gilbert and Michael Matthews over the summit of the Cauberg, three days later Flèche saw his masterclass in climbing calculation. Then in Liège he played his cards perfectly again, most notably at the race's critical moment, when Dani Moreno (Katusha) attacked close to the top of Ans and Valverde, belying his reputation as a wheel-sucker, chased down what was the most dangerous challenge of the event.
But he had been the overwhelming favourite at Liège and his victory, decided in the final kilometre of a singularly dull edition of the race, was also monotonously predictable. Equally, ever since Valverde took the WorldTour lead from Richie Porte in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, his outright victory in the WorldTour classification felt more like a solution to a rather tedious maths problem – how many points Valverde would need before being proclaimed the winner – than gripping sport.
A potentially dramatic final showdown at Il Lombardia was wrecked by the last-minute absence of Joaquim Rodríguez because of a training crash, making Valverde the outright winner with one round remaining. There can be no doubt that a rider like Valverde, winning rounds of the Mallorca Challenge in late January and still able to take fourth in Lombardy this October, boasts a huge level of consistency. But our failure to appreciate Valverde's 10 months of tenacity is partly the fault of the WorldTour itself and its lumping cycling's radically different races in one UCI-stamped basket.
On paper it should be interesting to see which pro is versatile enough to shine from the Tour Down Under through to Lombardia. Instead, the classification that bridges the whole calendar, as the UCI WorldTour does, is too weighted. Grand Tour riders who shine in week-long stage races and/or hilly Classics – such as Valverde, the only rider to win a Monument and finish on a Grand Tour podium this year, and the previous winner of the WorldTour, Joaquim Rodríguez – always seem to come up smiling. For proof of that, look at 2012, when Tom Boonen won all the WorldTour cobbled Classics but still only came third in the WorldTour rankings behind Joaquim Rodríguez and Bradley Wiggins. The apparent imbalance in the points systems is such that even if Boonen had won Milano-Sanremo in 2012, he still would not have taken the WorldTour outright. As the WorldTour points system stands, its results produce a familiar set of faces in the final ranking.
As a result, if one moment of Valverde's season really sticks in the mind, it was not when he raised the trophy as WorldTour winner in Abu Dhabi this autumn. Rather it was when Valverde wept with relief at the summit of Alpe d'Huez, having finally, definitively, attained his first Tour de France podium at an age when most Grand Tour specialists have long since thrown in the towel. Like him or loathe him, that day it was hard not to feel admiration for Valverde and his insistence on plugging away at a Tour podium target that had eluded him for so long.
But if by comparison Valverde's WorldTour win has not set the cycling world alight, it wasn't helped, of course, by the lack of Spanish media interest in the Classics in general. Whereas in Belgium the Movistar rider's run of Flèche and Liège victories commands enormous respect and correspondingly high numbers of newspaper column inches, in Spain, Valverde's podium place in the Tour garnered much more attention. Despite Óscar Freire's impact on the Classics and the World Championships, Valverde's subsequent success in the Ardennes – he is still the only Spanish Liège winner – has failed to convert him into a household sports name in the same way such a series of triumphs would do for a Belgian, Dutch or Italian cyclist.
Why such a notable lack of interest in Spain in the Classics, even now? You could lay the blame on the 1995 World Championships, arguably the most eagerly anticipated one-day race among Spanish fans in the last 30 years, if not ever. The fact that Miguel Indurain, then at the height of his Tour de France powers, sacrificed his rainbow jersey chances that day for a Spanish team-mate, Abraham Olano, rather than go for the win himself, was greeted with total incomprehension and disappointment by many Spanish fans. After that, and in spite of Olano's success that day, the window of opportunity for one-day racing to make an impact in Spain was seemingly broken for good.
Given the lack of interest in the WorldTour ranking, it could be argued that Valverde is overstretched by racing so much and for so long, and might have produced better results by focusing on specific targets. After all, three peaks of form in a season at the Ardennes, Tour and Vuelta is a major challenge for any rider, let alone a 35-year-old.
The Tour is where Valverde seemingly has it the toughest. After he took third overall in the 2015 Tour and fourth in 2014, as well as eighth in 2013, it might seem hard to justify pulling him from the Tour line-up in 2016. Yet Movistar look like they will send him to the Giro next year, while Quintana leads at the Tour. Valverde also falls off the radar more quickly than he deserves to because consistency tends to be a hugely under-rated quality among many cycling fans. See-sawing between victories and stinging defeats garners greater appreciation. It must be small comfort to Valverde but just to give a couple more examples, in Telekom the ever-reliable Erik Zabel was never given as much credit compared to the rollercoaster performances of Jan Ullrich. The same fate befell Abraham Olano when racing alongside the mercurial Jose María Jiménez at Banesto.
This meant that another fine testament to Valverde's consistency this year – fifth in the World Championships road race – went more or less unnoticed, unless it was to point out that he had failed to add another Worlds medal to his record total of six, the first dating from 2003. But just as fans like comeback kids more than steady Eddies, one gold medal and rainbow jersey for Valverde would quickly overshadow that particular achievement. In the meantime, Valverde seems doomed to remain undeservedly under-appreciated.