Like all good showmen, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has raised the anticipation by making us wait. Last year the Spaniard caught the eye at Dwars Door Vlaanderen – a rare appearance on the cobbles – and set tongues wagging about a possible Tour of Flanders debut four days later. That, ultimately, never materialised, but here we are, 12 months on, with the 38-year-old definitively set to take to De Ronde, in the rainbow jersey no less.
Valverde, who has won the Vuelta a España and finished on the podium of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, has a vast one-day pedigree, but that has been concentrated in the hillier Classics of southern Belgium.
He is a four-time winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a five-time winner of La Fleche Wallonne – not to mention his world title last year – but has only taken to the cobbles and of northern Belgium on a handful of occasions.
He has never ridden Flanders, one of the five Monuments, and his ride at Dwars last year begged the question why not.
“I think it’s the right moment. It’s been a lot of years without ever doing it, and this year it feels like the right moment, especially with the jersey,” the Spaniard told the press from his hotel in Beveren on Friday.
Received wisdom would suggest time and experience are needed to win such a challenging race as Flanders, where knowledge of the parcours can be so significant, but Valverde has spent his entire career defying convention. He has won prolifically in the past few years, even as he has entered his late 30’s, and has reached a rarefied level of consistency.
Expectations for Sunday, then, will naturally be high, but Valverde isn't getting ahead of himself.
“Do I consider myself a favourite? No. I consider myself a rider who can do well, but a favourite? No,” he said.
“I’m realistic. I know it’ll be very difficult to be up there with the riders who know the race well, who are specialists, who are heavier than me and much more experienced. It’s a race you have to know, and I practically know nothing about this race.
“I would say 90 per cent I can’t win. As for the other 10 per cent, with a lot of luck, with good legs, and with everything going well, then maybe I can. I need everything to go like it did at Worlds – without one single mistake."
Valverde said he has been struck by the welcome he has received in Belgium since arriving on Tuesday, with even more frenzy surrounding him this year with the rainbow jersey on his shoulders. However, he appealed to the Belgian fans not to expect too much.
“I know people are very excited, ‘Valverde is here’, but I ask them to be realistic. I’m going to do the best I can, but it’s difficult. You need a lot of luck, and any mistake you make is punished. They should know it’s easier to fail than to win.”
Flanders has been won in the rainbow jersey on five occasions, the last being Peter Sagan in 2016. Valverde acknowledged that just turning up to the Monument race with the rainbow jersey was special, and that victory would be a bonus but not something that would make or break his career.
“I am already happy with my palmares, but winning on Sunday would be amazing. For me, but also for the Belgian fans, and for any real fans who like cycling – I think they’d enjoy it as well," he said.
“It might be that I’ve come to Flanders too late. I’ll have to tell you on Sunday evening. I’ll either say it was too late, or I’ll say I came this time and enjoyed it as much as possible, but it’s not a race for me.”
Valverde has only ridden four cobbled Classics. His two appearances at Dwars in the past two years were preceded by a ride at both Dwars and E3 in 2014, the year the Tour de France featured a major cobblestone stage. What he lacks in personal experience, he’s been trying to make up for with studious homework.
“I’ve been watching videos of previous editions, seeing where the decisive selections are usually made. It’s very important to know it. And, as a fan, I love watching it,” he said.
“I’m not afraid of the cobbles,” he added. “What I’m afraid of is the tension in the peloton. It’s a race with a lot of tension, because positioning is fundamental. You might be very strong but if you’re on the back foot all day, you’re worth nothing and at the end of the race you’re dead.”
The 103rd Tour of Flanders is set to be one of the most open in recent memories. Many are drawing comparisons with the Tom Boonen-Fabian Cancellara, where those two would line up as the outstanding favourites. This time, however, there are more than 10 legitimate candidates, something which could play in Valverde’s favour.
“There should be a few more options, yes, without having a clear favourite,” he said. “But with the world champion’s jersey, whatever race it is, you’re always watched. Any move I make, I’m going to be marked.”