Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is back to racing in the peloton at the Tour Down Under. After sitting out a 19-month suspension for having been implicated in the Operacion Puerto affair, the 31-year-old is happy to be back in the bunch and confident he can return to the same level of form that saw him win take four spring classic victories and the Vuelta a España overall classification in the past.
The controversial Spaniard is rated as a possible overall contender at the Tour Down Under. But while Valverde himself doesn't doubt his abilities, he'es not obsessed with immediate victory. "I don't know when I will win again - if it doesn't happen right here in Australia then I won't panic," Valverde told Sportwereld at the start of the stage race. "If I have to wait even longer for success once I'm back in Europe, I won't panic. In the meantime, I can work on my endurance.
"Actually, there is only one thing I worry about: Will I, at the end of a hard race, still have the same finishing abilities as in the past? The explosive power to drop the remaining riders and the better sprinters?"
While he was sidelined from racing, Valverde watched the rise to unmatched classics supremacy of Philippe Gilbert (now at BMC) on TV, and admitted the Belgian will be a very tough rival for him in the spring. "I sometimes found it frightening, the extent of how good Gilbert was. When he jumped, it was just hasta luego - good bye - and his rivals only saw him again once he was on the podium. If he's as strong this season, it will be a whole new challenge to beat him. And that's what I'll have to do, because we partially target the same races..."
Whatever the outcome of his first races, Valverde is reluctant to comment any further on his implication in the doping scandal surrounding the Spanish doctor, maintaining his innocence. "What's the use? I know that I have nothing to reproach myself for, but everyone already has his own opinion on the matter and that won't change. Whoever didn't believe me in the past will not do it now. Which is why I now concentrate fully on my comeback to the peloton. I want to show that I still have the sport in my legs," Valverde concluded.