Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has expressed his relief at completing his first race since he suffered a broken kneecap and talus bone when he crashed out on the opening day of the 2017 Tour de France.
The Spaniard finished safely in the main peloton on day one of the Challenge Mallorca, the Trofeo Campos-Porreres-Felanitx-Ses Salines, coming home in 40th place behind winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo). On the second day of racing, he made a strong breakaway with Tim Wellens and Gianni Moscon.
Although Valverde has been back in full training since last autumn – he had already clocked up some 6,000 kilometres by early November as he prepared for his comeback – he confessed to a degree of nervousness about returning to the cut and thrust of the peloton on Thursday.
“At the beginning, there was uncertainty, and even a little bit of fear in the first moments,” Valverde told AS of his first day back in the saddle. “I’ve trained a lot and I feel good, but racing is different.
“I was a little bit nervous because you never know how you are going to be. But the day arrived and I felt good. It wasn’t a stage for me but I was able to ride at the front with my teammates and help [Daniele] Bennati for the finish.”
Valverde’s near seven-month lay-off is shorter than the 18 months he spent out of the peloton following his belated suspension for his implication in the Operacion Puerto blood doping investigation. On that occasion, he marked his return to the peloton with a stage win at the 2012 Tour Down Under, and the 37-year-old will hope to pick up an early victory in 2018.
“Hopefully I will get victories as soon as possible, but the first thing is to enjoy being on the bike again. I want to win because that’s what I like, but I’m not going to hurry,” Valverde said.
The hillier terrain of Friday’s Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, where Valverde placed 8th a year ago, proved to be a good opportunity for him to test his fitness and knee recovery. He placed third behind winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and runner-up Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), both riders were in a breakaway. Valverde finished third 24 seconds back.
“If I feed good, why not? But I’m going little by little. The forecast is for rain and there are some dangerous roads. Clearly, what I don’t want to do is fall,” he said before the start of the stage.
In a post-race interview, however, Valverde said the third-place result was like a dream way to start his season after such a difficult injury period. “Today's result and feelings have been good, really great I'd say. I felt really strong today. The training had gone well, but today's race was the real test to check if my knee was recovered.
"It was the best place to give it a good try: a cold race, under the rain, on dangerous roads... It all went really smooth, the best I could dream of. Especially on the climbs. I really felt strong on the uphill parts. On the descents, though, it was more difficult for me. I was a bit worried and didn't want to take any risks, because the roads were on a very dangerous state. To see my teammates falling down really made me see that staying on the bike was already a victory today.
"I knew that the breakaway would split in the finale if they took more risks than I wanted, and that's how it happened. Hats off to Wellens and Moscon, a well deserved first and second, but for me, taking 3rd is like a victory. Keeping the pace of those guys uphill after everything that happened is something to be really happy about. I knew I was doing well, but not so much.”
Valverde is joined in Mallorca by his new Movistar teammate Mikel Landa, who has been training with the team and is expected to make his debut before the end of the four-day series of races at the Challenge Mallorca.
“He’s a great rider and I get along very well with him,” Valverde said when asked about Landa. “I like to be on top of every detail and he’s maybe a little calmer in that respect, but there’s no doubt that he’s 100 per cent focused on his work, and I hope he has a great season.”
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