Having come back to racing this year after a doping suspension, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is also back to winning ways. With four victories and a podium spot at the Tour Down Under as well as Paris-Nice in his pocket, the Spaniard's balance sheet in late March is more than promising in view of his real targets this year, the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France.
Valverde did not expect such a successful return to competition, but he told L'Equipe that he trained as hard during the last year as when he was competing. "I knew I had good shape as I had trained well at home, but I didn't think I would be able to do such a good season start. But during the suspension, I did exactly what I did before. I trained regularly, and I had two peaks of form during the year. I trained as though I was competing, but without competing."
Turning his attention towards the Classics season, Valverde admitted that Philippe Gilbert (BMC) would be the man to beat after what the Belgian showed last season. "To me, Gilbert was the best rider in the world last year," the Spaniard continued. "I would love to be able to deliver a grand duel against him in the Ardennes Classics. I'm sure this would also be great for the spectators."
On top of his other prestigious victories, Valverde won Liège-Bastogne-Liège twice in his career, and the Flèche Wallonne once. Gilbert took all three Ardennes Classics last year, on top of his first victory of the Amstel Gold Race in 2010.
But Valverde, who also has the overall 2009 Vuelta a Espana to his account, sees himself as a contender for the Tour de France this year. Even though the 2012 parcours has widely been branded as one for the better time triallists, the Movistar rider believes in his chances to take the yellow jersey.
"My idea is to fight for the general classification," said the 31-year-old, who already has two top ten results in the Tour to his name (in 2007 and 2008). "It's clear that the amount of time trial kilometres favours those riders who are specialists against the clock, like Wiggins or Evans. But the Tour is the Tour, it is very long and anything can happen, it can be over at any day. So I will do my utmost to be there, to do the best I can, even if, to me, the favourite is Andy Schleck.
"He wants to win it, but so do I. In the time trial, we are about on the same level. I think the Tour 2012 will be very open."