Cobbles, dirt roads and hills: Valverde to blaze a new lone trail in 2016 Classics campaign

Spaniard takes aim at Strade Bianche, Tour of Flanders and Ardennes

2015 UCI WorldTour winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) begins the most varied and complex Classics campaigns of his lengthy career on Saturday at this weekend’s Strade Bianche, before continuing with a debut at the Tour of Flanders and concluding, as ever, in the Ardennes in April.

Subject to final confirmation of the spring race programs for Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), the triple Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner is currently the only top rider who will straddle the increasingly broad divide between the cobbled one-day race specialists and those gunning for the hilly Classics.

First up is Saturday’s Strade Bianche, a race where Valverde finished third last year and in 2014, and which he starts following a devastating overall win in February’s Vuelta a Andalucia, which he took for a fourth time after a stunning lone attack on the hardest single climb of the race.

As ever, prior to the Italian race, Valverde shows no hesitation in flinging down the gauntlet, telling Cyclingnews: “I’m in good form and Strade Bianche is a race I really like. I like that kind of racing on dirt roads, the only bad news is that they say it’s going to rain and the earth is going to turn to mud! It’ll be a really hard race.

“There are a heck of a lot of tough rivals too this year, [Peter] Sagan (Tinkoff), [Greg] Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), [Zdenek] Stybar (Etixx-Quickstep). There’s a long, long list of contenders. But after what I saw on Saturday watching the Belgian Classics, Van Avermaet is going to be the man to beat.”

Valverde was impressed, too, by another Strade Bianche participant, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Jesper Stuyven, saying: “That young Belgian kid who won on Sunday, he’s another one to watch out for, too.”

After the GP Industria e Artigianato di Larciano on Sunday, a return to Tirreno-Adriatico follows, marking Valverde’s first participation in the Race of Two Seas in 14 years. The last time Valverde rode there and finished was in 2002 as a rookie professional, his first and as yet only experience of Italian stage racing.

Valverde then heads on to Milano-Sanremo before a much-heralded venture into the Belgian cobbled Classics.

Flanders

Valverde’s debut aged 35 in the Tour of Flanders has drawn much of the media’s attention, particularly as it is a race where experience and knowledge of the course are considered crucial to maximizing odds of success. But Valverde’s fleeting past experience of cobbled Classics – he lined out two years ago at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke – does not suggest that he will be completely out of his depth even on such unfamiliar terrain.

On paper, in 2014 Valverde was using Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke purely as practice for the pavé stage of that July’s Tour de France. But in the first race, Valverde was in at the kill, forming part of a four-man chase group behind eventual solo winner Niki Terpstra, brushing shoulders with double Tour of Flanders winner Stijn Devolder, Gert Steegmans and Nicki Sorensen. The quartet were only swept up with 1.5 kilometres to go after coming to within 15 seconds of Terpstra. Valverde finished 36th, and 63rd in Harelbeke.

Valverde will repeat in these two races prior to the Tour of Flanders, and he recognises the learning curve is a steep one. “For me that will be brand new. I’m going to have very tough rivals there. “I won’t know the race, but I will aim for as good a result as possible and to be up there with the best when it matters, even if I have to say that’s going to be very complicated.”

This begs the question whether Valverde, as such a gifted Classics racer, should have ridden Flanders earlier in his career. But in an interview published with Spanish sports daily AS on Thursday, while saying that “possibly I’d have liked to have done it sooner,” he also pointed out that he skipped Flanders – and for that matter Paris-Roubaix – because “I didn’t want to risk anything in the build-up to the Ardennes, which are races which suit me better.”

However, for this year, Valverde sounds, curiously enough, more hesitant about the Ardennes Classics, even though his track record is such that he will be the overwhelming favourite.

“The Amstel-Flèche-Liège trio of races is going to be different for me this year,” Valverde told Cyclingnews. “Rather than being in top shape I don’t know if I’ll be there at 100 percent, because I’ve got the Giro d’Italia in May. You’ve got to be so strong to win those races. I think while I’ll be good, I don’t know if I’ll be good enough to win them.”

There is also a slightly different finale in Liège, with 600 metres of cobbles after the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and prior to the long drag up to Ans, but Valverde says he’s relishing the change. “It’s a new challenge, a new reason to feel motivated for the race.”

Motivation, in any case, is rarely lacking with Valverde, now at a point in his career when many riders have either retired or have concrete plans for hanging up their wheels. But in terms of enthusiasm and passion for racing, age as yet does not appear to have caught up with Valverde, and he warns – and his seven-kilometre solo ascent to Peñas Blancas in the Vuelta a Andalucia strongly suggests he is not bluffing – that he is still a force to be reckoned with.

“At the moment I’m feeling really good, perhaps even a little bit better than this time last year,” Valverde says “What we’ve got to see if whether the results live up to that.”

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