At the top of Old Willunga Hill, the Santos Tour Down Under interviewer Paul Sherwen has had to talk for a few seconds more before he could get some words from stage 5 winner Alejandro Valverde, as his teammate Jose Ivan Gutierrez wanted to give him a big hug. There was a lot of emotion between the two old Spanish warriors reunited in competition like brothers in arms.
“For me, Alejandro is an exceptional sportsman,” Gutierrez told Cyclingnews in Adelaide a couple of hours later. “I know him very well. The day I heard the news of his ban, I was very sad. In my 13-year long career, I’ve had the pleasure of rooming to with the likes of Laurent Jalabert, Abraham Olano and Jose Maria Jimenez, but I can’t look at all those great champions with as much fascination as I do for Valverde. He was born only for cycling. Today, the sport of cycling has recovered a true champion.”
Valverde’s victory was his first since he returned from suspension following his implication in Operacion Puerto, the investigation into blood doping which centred on the activities of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.
“I believe this win can give great joy to Spanish cycling and our Movistar team,” Gutierrez continued. “Alberto Contador is the world’s best rider for three-week racing. Lance Armstrong was a ‘grandissimo’ champion but mostly at the Tour de France. Valverde is the most versatile of all riders. From the junior categories to the Grand Tours, he has won every kind of race. But he needs to be part of a group that shows him affection. Friendship and dedication are important for him to succeed.”
Valverde had good reasons for being full of praise for his teammates from Movistar who escorted him to success towards Willunga Hill. “Sometimes the talks from the pre-race meetings don’t work,” Gutierrez said. “But today, it went exactly according to our plans. It was like Playstation.”
Going up Willunga Hill, Gutierrez was captured live on TV giving a hand sling to Angel Madrazo, like track riders in a Madison. “Madrazo is like my brother,” the veteran from Cantabria said. “We’re from the same region. We train together every day. As I’m old now (33), I pass all my knowledge of cycling onto him.” One year ago, Madrazo, whose nickname is ‘El Gorrión (The Sparrow) de Cazoña’ was picked by the Port Adelaide Cycle Club as the unknown participant of the Santos Tour Down Under to cheer for. “He is a little Bettini,” Gutierrez said by way of explanation, “but Bettini was a more intelligent rider.”
Besides the up-and-coming Madrazo, the Movistar team enjoyed the fruits of the work of its recruit from Caja Rural, Javier Moreno. The 27-year-old gave Valverde a fantastic final lead-out up Willunga Hill and finished 7th. “We knew his qualities,” Gutierrez commented. “But it’s amazing how quickly he took the good habits of our team. Every day at the Tour Down Under, he’s done a great job at the important moments. We’re very happy with him.”
Gutierrez also expressed some regrets. “In stage 1, there was a big crash and that’s where Alejandro lost a lot of positions compared to Simon Gerrans,” he noted. “In stage 2 to Stirling, he was passed by Gerrans at the very end for third place and that’s where he lost four seconds on him, but had we controlled the breakaway [of eventual winner William Clarke], we could have won the overall classification as well as the Willunga stage.
“But the most important thing for us is the exploit of his comeback and the emotion it brings to all of us. Alejandro will win more races this year. He’ll have some difficult days, but he’s the best and we have a great team. His duel with Philippe Gilbert in the Ardennes classics is very promising. Gilbert is a very spectacular rider. He has the mentality of a very aggressive rider but he has had one great season. Alejandro has always had great seasons. We’ll give him all the strength we have.”
Gutierrez concluded with the assessment that Valverde will not contest Gerrans’ leadership during the final criterium in Adelaide on Sunday. “We’re not a sprinters’ team,” said the Spaniard. “In a one-on-one sprint, Alejandro would beat Gerrans, as he would beat Petacchi, Freire, Boonen etc. Probably the only one he wouldn’t beat is Cavendish. But in the middle of 130 riders, it’s mission impossible. GreenEdge has the perfect riders for criterium racing and they’re used to this kind of cycling in Australia. In Europe, we don’t have any. But that’s ok, we’re happy with what we’ve achieved.”