Valverde: I may race beyond 2020

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) says he has no intention of slowing down now that he has finally won the rainbow jersey, with racing beyond the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo now a distinct possibility.

Speaking in a lengthy press conference during the Movistar team's first get together for the 2019 season, Valverde did not rule out an early start to his season in Australia, presumably at the Tour Down Under. His early race programme could also include one or more days of the Mallorca Challenge - where he has often started his season, the UAE Tour and Strade Bianche. The Tour of Flanders, a long discussed possible target for Valverde, remains an option.

Looking back to 2018, Valverde underlined once again that whatever he achieves in the final years of his career, winning the World Championships in Innsbruck constituted the biggest triumph of his career. "El maximo", as he called it in Spanish. As a consequence, racing with the rainbow jersey on his back in 2019 will make the season an unforgettable one, regardless of the results.

As for 2020 and the Olympic Games, which has long been Valverde’s expected swansong, he appears now to be looking into continuing to pedal into a third decade of racing. His contract with Movistar ends in 2019, but he is not anticipating any problems in renewing and has no plans to move elsewhere.

"Having as good a season as 2018 would be very hard again but if I have a 2020 season where I'm fighting for the wins, why not go for another one?" Valverde, now 38, said in Pamplona.

"If I did continue, it wouldn’t be for much longer after that. But if I have to retire in 2020, then so be it. Just to race for its own sake doesn't make much sense after being so long at a high level."

Valverde argued that he was a little surprised, after his 2017 crash and serious knee injury in the Tour de France, that his 2018 season proved to be such a success. He won the Abu Dhabi Tour, the Volta a Catalunya, and two stages of the Vuelta a España, as well as the World Championships. He has now won 122 races during his 18-year career, not withstanding his two-year ban for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto blood doping ring.

"My life had already changed with a lot of success in the past, but this is something special," Valverde reflected on being world champion.

"It’s something very, very different, it’s the maximum possible. People are always talking to me about the Worlds and it’s finally here." He said that he seriously targeting the World’s since 2003, when he took silver behind Igor Astarloa.

2019 debut in Australia? Taking on the Tour of Flanders

Valverde’s favoured races for showing off the world champion’s rainbow jersey are both on home roads in Murcia and then the Classics, "Maybe even the Tour of Flanders, that would be something special. I’ve always had a lot of say in what races I did, but there won’t be a problem with agreeing with the team, I’m sure," he explained.

Wearing the rainbow jersey, he said, did not add an extra pressure on his shoulders, thanks to his age.

"If I was 25 or 26 maybe it would be different, but at 38, not at all," he said. Nor did his motivation drop. "I’m so keen on racing because I’m aware I can still win.

"There are riders who are very good but they have to work hard, train six or seven hours, to get it. Of course I have to train but I’ve never needed to do that. I’ve always been a winner and I still am a winner."

It is clear that winning the Worlds has helped prolong Valverde’s desire to continue racing, rather than the opposite.

"The win has helped me relax a great deal, in cycling I’ve done almost everything I can, but it’s not taken away my ambition. I’m still hungry for a new season, and wearing this jersey will make that even more pleasurable," he explained.

"At the end of the day, cycling is my life, it’s what I know how to do, if they took it away from me, physically I’d lose something, fade away a bit. But by racing, I’ve still got the same spark."

Two Grand Tours in 2019

Valverde revealed he spends around a month at most each without riding his bike during the off-season. so it’s not surprising that his 2019 season could well contain two Grand Tours, as it did in 2018.

"It’s not too excessive an effort for me, although you have to choose your week-long races well because if you overdo it, then you’re not going to perform so well. But I would” - rather than do the Vuelta - “be more tired running around going to Canada and other races.”

Whilst the Tour de France is neither ruled out or ruled in, the only race that would appear to be definitely on Valverde’s programme for now is the 2019 World Championships. The rest has to still be decided with the Movistar team management, probably after seeing the details of the 2019 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

"I’d like to know what I’m riding as much as you would," Valverde joked.

Valverde would like to ride the Tour of Flanders, although it is not definitely on his calendar, and he recognises that his lack of experience there represents a serious handicap. Milano-San Remo, perhaps, is more favourable for him, but he describes it as a "lottery where a lot of things have to fall into place for you to win."

Only Paris-Roubaix is definitely off his program. "I’d like to see it from the team car, but to race in it, I’d have to put on seven or eight kilos in weight."

Valverde perhaps found it hardest to maintain his motivation was at the Tour de France, where Movistar’s hopes for success were so high that even a team prize win and a stage with Nairo Quintana felt like underachievement.

He pointed out that nobody in Movistar was happy after starting the race with Quintana, Valverde and Mikel Landa as a trio of team leaders.

"I didn’t enjoy myself at all, and nor did the team," he said.

"We didn’t have the kind of feelings that we wanted and then there were Nairo’s and Mikel’s crashes; it all set us back. It was the best Tour possible for us in the first ten days and then it didn’t go the way we wanted."

Ban power meters

Whilst Movistar's strategy for the 2019 Tour de France will likely be carefully studied in the months to come, Valverde has also been drawing his own observations about the sport's biggest race. Valverde was scathing about reducing the teams in size from nine to eight but surprisingly in agreement with Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, who wants to ban power meters in races.

"I don’t think that’s a bad idea, I’d like to see teams without power meters and racing on feelings," Valverde argued.

"Better that than race radios, which at the end of the day are about rider safety, power meters don’t have any effect on that, they are just about strategy and data."

Could banning them help reduce a single team’s stranglehold on the race, he was asked.

"Possibly yes, there are teams like Sky who use them a lot," he pointed out.

"Everybody wants to ride at 400 watts and they’ve done a superb job of coming to the Tour with all their riders in great form, you can’t fault them for that. But if we took away power meters, we’d notice something different. Not so much in individual riders, but you would notice the effect on big teams and their ability to keep a race under control, particularly on the climbs."

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.