An interview with Alejandro Valverde, March 28, 2007
Often counted among the biggest names in pro cycling, 2006 ProTour winner Alejandro Valverde has plenty of victories, but the 26 year-old admits he still has some learning to do before he will bank on winning the Tour de France. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes looks at his excellent 2006 season and what could be a very special year ahead.
Alejandro Valverde is on most lists of Tour de France contenders, but unlike most of his fellow stars, Valverde has already racked up more than one win this year - surprising even himself with stellar form. In an eight-day period in early March, Valverde closed out victory in the Tour of Valencia then won the time trial and the general classification in the Tour of Murcia. He had gone into both races aiming simply to build form, and so to come out on top over a month earlier than his stated first goal of Amstel Gold was way ahead of schedule.
Cyclingnews contacted Valverde recently, asking him if he was surprised how things had gone. "I think that after winning both Valencia and Murcia, I can say that my season has started very well," he replied. "But to tell you the truth, that is rather unexpected for me, because I started those races with the intention of testing myself, not to win.
"In Valencia I wanted to test my form in the first mountain stage of the year, and even though I did not win the stage [he was second behind Alberto Contador], I ended up first overall! The same happened in Murcia, I wanted to take part because it was important for my fellow citizens that I was there. I wanted to test myself in the time trial... and I won that, plus the race. So, yes, all of this is very positive."
"I think that after winning both Valencia and Murcia, I can say that my season has started very well." -Alejandro Valverde with a bit of an understatement
Apart from adding to his already-impressive palmares, he said that both victories meant something significant. "To win in Valencia was important, because once you have already won something, it takes a lot of pressure off you. You can immediately take it a little easier going into the rest of the season. And to win in Murcia was of course something very special, because it happened right where I am living. All my family, all of my friends were present each day and I was really happy to win it for them."
Valverde has been a proven victor since an early age, dominating youth and junior categories and taking some very good results after turning professional. However, while he is able to sprint and to climb with the best in the sport, time trialling has always been a liability of sorts. He knew that he had to improve upon this Achilles heel in order to be a bona fide Grand Tour contender, and he has worked hard over the past year or two in order to achieve that goal.
Time trial improvements
Solid displays in last year's Vuelta showed he was making progress - he finished third and fourth in the big time trials there - but the Murcian victory is of special significance.
"It is a fact that my victory in the time trial means a lot to me," he stated. "That has always been my weakness, but I started working a lot about two years ago to improve myself in that speciality, and now the results showed that those efforts have been worthwhile. This is very important for the future and, of course, most of all for the major Tours, where the time trials are very often decisive in the final victory."
Speaking to Cyclingnews at the team training camp back in February, Valverde laid out his intended schedule for hitting top condition. "I think now I am 80 to 85% of my top form," he said then. "This is normal for this time of year because at the moment things are tranquil and will be so until March. Then I will start training intensely to be good for the April Classics."
So, the obvious question is, does winning so early mean he is on course for a good classics campaign and Tour? "I really hope so!" he answered. "My next race will be the Criterium International, and after that Vuelta al País Vasco, to prepare myself for the Classics. I will start in the Amstel - the one I really would like to win this year - the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After that I will take some rest and be back in the Vuelta a Catalunya and Dauphiné Libéré, in order to prepare for the Tour de France.
"Amstel is important because I won the other two last year. I was aiming to do well in that race and was feeling very good, but in the end I had a little bit of hunger knock. This season I want to make up for that. After that, my goals are the Tour and then the Worlds. I think at this stage that I am unlikely to do the Vuelta."
Valverde was happy with his 2006. "I think it was a very good season. Very consistent. The Classics went very well, the Tour was good until I had bad luck with my injury, and the Vuelta and the World Championships were very good. It is better than I was expecting beforehand."
His overall consistency - winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne, placing second in the Vuelta and Vuelta al País Vasco, netting third in the Tour of Romandie plus other strong results - meant that he was the clear winner of the ProTour. He said that it wasn't initially a target but things worked out well. "I won Classics and was third in Romandie and that earned me a lot of points. From that point on I wanted to win it," he says.
Although many riders, teams and observers agree that the overall aim of the ProTour - that of helping cycling grow as a global sport - is a good one, the series has had a lot of problems due to the fallout with the Grand Tour organisers. Valverde gave his opinion prior to the establishment of an uneasy truce between the two sides, saying then that he hoped that things would be resolved.
"I think the conflict is not good for cycling. It is a problem that needs to be solved as quickly as possible. I think we have enough problems without that happening. My feeling is that if the ProTour is well planned and thought out, I don't think it is bad. But there are a couple of things that need to be changed."
Tour de France plans
Valverde has twice started the Tour, but encountered bad luck on both occasions. In 2005 he won the first big mountain stage, outsprinting Lance Armstrong with a hugely impressive surge of speed. However a knee problem flared up, and despite lying fifth overall and wearing the white jersey as best young rider, he went home three days later.
Last year his time in the race was even shorter, the Spaniard crashed out on stage three with a broken collarbone. When asked if those two disappointments were difficult to take, he is philosophical. "Difficult? It is bad luck, that is all. I hope this year to have good luck and to finish the race, at least."
Valverde will head into the Tour as co-leader with Oscar Pereiro, the Spaniard who finished second to Floyd Landis last season and who may yet be crowned winner of the race. Although in the past some teams have not functioned well with a dual setup, he feels that it is a big plus for Caisse d'Epargne.
"It is good with Pereiro on the team because both of us can share the responsibility. There is less pressure that way so it is better for Oscar, and better for me. We are both very strong riders for the Tour and for other riders, it is more difficult to control things when they have to watch out for two of us rather than just one.
"I think that overall, this year's team is very good. It is very strong, very united. I think we have some good riders here, we will have a good year. I am very tranquil here."
Valverde is due to race next in the Criterium International, and then will likely do the Vuelta al País Vasco, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After that, he will ride the Vuelta a Catalunya and the Dauphiné Libéré prior to heading to London for the Tour de France start. While he has yet to finish the Tour, his strong performances in past Vueltas, his good form this season and his improving time trial ability are all good signs. So too his age.
"I believe that when you're 26 or 27 years old your body is stronger and is more able to do a three week race at 100%," he says, conscious that many Grand Tour contenders reach maturity around that age or a little later.
Looking to the Tour, Valverde singles out Vinokourov, Basso and Klöden as his likely chief rivals. "There are more, but I think they are the strongest," he says. He doesn't yet rank himself amongst the list of prime favourites, suggesting that 2007 is all about learning. "I think that it is best to learn what the Tour is like, right until Paris. It is important too do a good overall classification, but if I am in the first five this year that is good. I will then go 100% next year to try to win."
It is a good approach. He's clearly got the ability to be the next Spanish Grand Tour winner, but also realises that time is on his side. He will consequently go into this year's race under less pressure than many of the other big names. Basso, Vinokourov and Klöden may be on many peoples' minds as favourites, but despite his lack of Tour de France experience, Valverde is likely to be a very serious dark horse. He’ll certainly leave his mark on the race and, this time, he wants to be in the thick of the fight all the way to Paris.