Alejandro Valverde believes that an enforced break from racing has taught him to value more in life, although he knows that this year's Vuelta a España, which begins in Seville this Saturday, would have been a great chance to defend his only grand tour title.
Now eight months into his two-year ban for involvement in the Operacion Puerto affair, Valverde spoke to Spanish sports daily Marca about the upcoming Vuelta, living without racing and what the future holds.
He expressed regret at not being able to defend his Vuelta title. "I am sorry to be the last winner and unable to defend my win," said Valverde. "And this year there are several stages in my land, Murcia, and I'll have to settle for being there as a spectator," he said before adding about the race route: "I think I would have been good because it is not harder than last year when I won."
But contrary to this statement the 30-year-old says he's not embittered by the whole process of expulsion from the sport from which he has made a living. "The truth is that time has passed very quickly and although change is not easy, now I have learned to live without racing and enjoy other aspects of life," he explained.
"For the last nine years I have only trained and competed; I'm discovering that there is life beyond the bike," Valverde continued. "I have a beach house that I had only stayed in for two nights in five years - now I've been there six weeks."
Valverde explained that he still rides and remains in good physical condition, the appeal of returning to the sport in 2012 keeping him motivated. "I train every day with my mates and they say I'm still as unbearable as always," he joked before adding, "There are still many who call me and give me encouragement."
Although Valverde appeared composed and seemingly at peace with his current predicament in the sport, there was a little venom in the Spaniard's tail. "I think they are stealing two of my best years as a professional," he said. "In 2010 I hadn't slowed. In all the stage races in which I raced, I had at least been on the podium.
"Perhaps I finished less of them [than in previous years] but I won regularly. In addition, I was leader of the ProTour, a sign that this was in a great time."
Of his return to racing, which is scheduled for January 1, 2012, Valverde said he doesn't want to obsess about coming back, but it's clearly a priority. "When I have finished my punishment I'll be free to contract, but I think you have to respect where you've been and where you've been treated well, so my first choice is to return to [current Caisse d'Epargne boss] Unzúe Eusebio," he explained.
He added that there have been talks with the team to keep the current racing group together and that he doesn't fear rejection by some sectors of the sport. "My case is very different from others, like Vinokourov and Basso," he said. "The crowd has always shown me that it's on my side and that's enough for me."
And at suggestions that he could work with Alberto Contador, Valverde jumped, saying he believed the pair would be a perfect combination at Movistar, should each rider compete for that squad in the future. "Alberto and I would make a perfect couple. We are compatible and I would help him win the Tour de France," he said.
"I have already shown at other times that I can submit to work for a leader and with Contador I could do it again. He could focus on the Tour and I on other races."