It was possibly the biggest surprise of Movistar's Vuelta a España press conference but it almost went unnoticed: for the first time in nearly 20 years, Alejandro Valverde ruled himself out of the GC battle for the Vuelta.
Described by Chris Froome during the Briton’s fightback from his 2019 injury as an inspirational example of longevity, Valverde began racing the Vuelta in 2002, the only year he has ever abandoned his home Grand Tour.
Since then, Valverde’s 20-year-old track record in the Vuelta has developed into the most lengthy of any professional in the history of the race and one of the most protracted rider-to-Grand Tour relationships in the history of the sport, even with a suspension for doping between 2010 and 2011.
His 15th Vuelta start on Saturday means Valverde is now just two short of the all-time record, held by Burgos-born rider Iñigo Cuesta (1994-2010). Apart from claiming overall victory in 2009 and 12 stages, Valverde has finished on the Vuelta podium on seven occasions, with his worst placing on GC 12th in 2016.
Last year, having played down but never entirely ruled out his GC options, Valverde quietly completed the Vuelta in 10th place overall.
This year, for the first time in two decades, things have changed, and in 2021 Valverde will no longer be fighting for a place in the overall classification at all. Instead he will be going for stage wins and in support of Movistar's team leaders Enric Mas and Miguel Angel López.
“For me in the Vuelta now, a good classification is secondary. Being realistic about it, I can’t make a top three and I have my teammates for that,” Valverde said on Friday. “If we can get a podium placing with one of them and a stage win for me, I’d be more than satisfied.
“The first thing is to give Enric and Miguel Ángel a hand in the high mountains. Once I’ve done my work, I can lose a bit of time and start looking for my own opportunities. If I can combine being in the action for them and then get a stage victory for me, so much the better.”
Valverde expressed his affection for the Vuelta, saying he was “over the moon to be here again, this is the race I like the most.”
“There are stages that suit me, although the rivals are very strong and stage wins are harder and harder to get. But we’ll have some chances.”
Valverde has taken two wins this season, in the GP Miguel Indurain and a stage in the Criterium du Dauphine. On both occasions race craft and well-calculated timing of his attacks were as important as pure strength.
“I’m enjoying myself a lot more than last year, which was a very strange one,” Valverde said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted season. “Hopefully the Vuelta will be even more fun.”
Valverde has still to decide if he will go on to make his debut in the European Championships or try for a selection for the World Championships in Belgium.
As for 2022, he already made it clear during the Tour de France that he aims to continue racing for at least another year.
“I don’t know if this is my last Tour but sure it’s not my last season as a pro,” he told Spanish sports daily AS during the race.
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