By Hedwig Kröner
Two top ten finishers of this year's Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia), face a similar dilemma when it comes to organising their season objectives. Both riders perform well all year round, and are able to shine in one-day events like the Spring Classics as well as in stage races such as the Tour de France. Luxembourg's Kirchen finished eighth in the 2008 French Grand Tour, and Spanish Valverde placed ninth. Seeing that both also have a scored Classic one-day races before, and are important members of their teams for a variety of races throughout the season, the top ten placings in the Tour put their team managers in front of a difficult decision.
Team Columbia's directeur sportif Rolf Aldag assessed that it wasn't easy to choose between year-round competitiveness and focusing on a Tour de France build-up. "We will make the plan for next season soon," he told Cyclingnews on the penultimate day of the Grande Boucle. "During the Tour, we asked ourselves if it would have been better if Kirchen had started later during the season. Then again, he's a rider who shines in the Classics, too. If you risk it and put everything on the Tour, it wouldn't suit his aggressive riding style, either. You should only do that if you believe that he can one day win it. Otherwise, it's just too nice to see him ride at the Classics. It's not realistic to win everything."
Moreover, Aldag said, it was important to respect the wishes of the rider for motivation. "I also think that riders like Valverde or Kirchen really like their Classics. I think it would be hard to start imposing something else on them. These are the races they like best; the ones they prepare for in winter; the ones they look forward to. In that sense, it's difficult to tell them that they should stop doing that, and do everything for the Tour. I think they would react by rejecting it and be unhappy about it. It's important to accept riders the way they are. Kim is not a born Tour de France winner, even if he can achieve a great overall placing. But he can win races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold Race. So you have to go with what he wants to do himself, too."
The case of Alejandro Valverde is somewhat different, as the Spaniard has finished on the Vuelta a España podium twice already, and won an impressive number of one-day races. His team manager Eusebio Unzué continued "to believe in Alejandro" and thought that "he will one day be able to win the Tour. Alejandro only started to gather experience in this event when he came to race with us [in 2005 - ed.]. I also think that this lack of experience showed in the key moments this year. But in time, with more experience and maturity, he can achieve this goal, especially since we now have a time in cycling where there's lot much difference anymore between the overall contenders."
Still, there is some similarity as to the difficulties both riders face when it comes to putting together a season's race programme. "Alejandro is a rider that maintains this super-competitive level during the whole year," Unzué continued. "For him, any kind of race can be an objective, and he likes it that way. I think we have to go with that. We know that he can win Classics, sprints, mountain stages, one-week stage races, time trials - he's done all that! The only victory he lacks is a Grand Tour. And he already missed out on one by a hair, two years ago at the Vuelta.
"He has a lot of qualities. Still looking at the results, I think that in order to be competitive for a Tour de France victory, he has to build up to July in a more calm manner. Certainly, you'd sacrifice a lot of other victory opportunities for that. It's very difficult to make that decision."
The question also remains which race goals - Grand Tour overall placings or one-day Classics - count more on the riders' palmarès and in the view of the public. "A top ten placing at the Tour is a highly respected achievement," added Aldag. "You show that you can be competitive over three weeks. On the other hand, a Classics win counts more in certain countries than a top ten placing at the Tour, for example in Belgium. In Germany, people don't value it in the same way. Steffen Wesemann's Flanders victory didn't get a lot of attention at all in Germany, for example. So it really depends."
As to Kirchen's and Valverde's next goals this season, they are also similar. Both will ride the Olympics in Beijing - with Valverde at the Clásica San Sebastián this week-end - and hope for a good World Championship in Varese at the end of September. However, Aldag did not know yet how to build up his rider for the event in Italy. "Either Kim takes a break and builds up again for the Worlds, which will be hard, or he just continues on this level, which will be hard, too," he said.
Valverde, for his part, will prepare the Worlds with his home Grand Tour. "After the Olympics, Alejandro will take a short break and start at the Vuelta afterwards. But as he's been racing competitively for the whole year already, I think it will be difficult for him to go for a general classification goal. But he will surely start the race," Unzué hinted at a possible withdrawal of Valverde from the Vuelta. The rider, who missed out on the World Championship title three times already, finishing on the podium in 2003, 2005 and 2006, is eager to get the Gold medal at the event one day.
"A Worlds title is also still on his to-do list," said Unzué, smiling. "I'm sure that he will win it one day. I don't know if it will be this year, but one day, he will take it. He has it in his legs..."