Valverde: Wearing the rainbow jersey makes 2019 a totally different year

World champion rates Wellens as man to beat on opening day in Mallorca

World champion Alejandro Valverde will look to get his 2019 season off to a winning start when he lines up in the opening event of the Challenge Mallorca on Thursday, the Trofeo Ses Salines-Campos-Porreres-Felanitx.

Thursday marks the opening day of the European road racing season, and Valverde told a press conference on Wednesday evening that he is looking to clock up his first victory in the rainbow bands of world champion.

"Wearing that jersey makes 2019 a totally different year for me," Valverde said, according to Spanish news agency EFE. "I’m full of enthusiasm and I’m eager to start again, and there’s nothing better than doing it here in Mallorca."

John Degenkolb sprinted to victory in the corresponding race last year, but this time around, the route is rather different on the opening day in Mallorca, with the peloton facing a summit finish on the 5km-long Puig San Salvador.

Valverde and his Movistar teammate Mikel Landa line up among the principal contenders for victory in a peloton that also includes Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic), Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Vuelta a España stage winner Oscar Rodriguez (Euskadi-Murias).

On arriving in Mallorca, Valverde tested the finishing climb and, at a press conference on Wednesday evening, he tipped Wellens to be among his chief rivals on the first day of the event.

"Challenge Mallorca is gaining in importance every year," Valverde said. "This year, the first stage is quite demanding. I didn’t know the climb before but I like it. We have good weather and the sensations aren’t bad, but we must also keep in mind our rivals, especially one who is stronger every year: Tim Wellens will be very difficult to beat."

The Ardennes Classics will be the culmination of Valverde’s spring, and he will later ride the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, while Landa and Nairo Quintana lead Movistar at the Tour de France. After winning the rainbow jersey in Innsbruck last year, the 38-year-old is targeting a repeat victory in Yorkshire in September.

"It’s a demanding course though not as hard as that in Innsbruck," Valverde said. "I’ll try to win even though the range of contenders is wider and it will be difficult."

Before landing the title last season, Valverde had previously claimed six medals at the Worlds in a career interrupted by his ban for his implication in the Operación Puerto blood doping inquiry. Asked to rate his place in the pantheon of great Spanish riders, Valverde – who met with tennis player Rafael Nadal in Mallorca on Wednesday – said that he was "neither the best nor the worst".

"For me, Miguel [Indurain] is always going to be the best, then there’s Perico [Pedro Delgado]," Valverde said. "Each has given his all – Miguel and Perico in the Tour, and me in the Worlds and the Classics."

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