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Ultra-veteran Valverde pulls down curtain on Vuelta a España

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 11: Alejandro Valverde Belmonte of Spain and Movistar Team celebrates with his teammates tribute to his farewell to the professional cycling on the podium ceremony and in the Plaza Cibeles with the Palacio de Cibeles - Ayuntamiento de Madrid in the background after the 77th Tour of Spain 2022, Stage 21 a 96,7km stage from Las Rozas to Madrid / #LaVuelta22 / #WorldTour / on September 11, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Valverde with his Movistar teammates in Madrid (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images))

While Remco Evenepoel soaked up the applause as champion in his first ever Vuelta a España this Sunday in Madrid, one Spanish rider who has been an integral part of the same event for two decades was also celebrating what was his final participation.

Twenty years older than Evenepoel, on Sunday Alejandro Valverde received multiple tributes in what is his 16th-ever Vuelta, and his last before retiring at the end of the season.

The celebrations of Valverde's last Vuelta began with a short ceremony at the start of stage 21 in Las Rozas, when Valverde received a sculpture made of recycled glass in recognition of his contributions to the race.

They continued with Valverde being granted the honour of moving ahead of the Vuelta peloton as they entered the final circuit of the race in the Paseo de la Castellana boulevard central He stayed ahead for several kilometres, smiling and waving at fans as they cheered on the local star.

Finally and before Evenepoel received his last jersey of the race, Valverde and his Movistar teammates climbed onto the winner's podium to yet more applause.

When he stood on the podium, Valverde was initially wearing a gold maillot in honour of his 2009 Vuelta victory back when the Spanish Grand Tour's leader's jersey was that colour.

Valverde then removed the garment to show off a World Champion's jersey, in honour of another one of his major triumphs, back in 2018. Then off came that jersey, with his Movistar standard team kit turning out to be the final layer, which was not removed, underneath.

Despite local media hopes that he might find himself fighting for the overall classification or his own aspirations of a stage win, Valverde has had a relatively low-key final Vuelta.

He concluded in 13th place overall after supporting teammate and GC contender Enric Mas. However at both starts and finishes, most notably when the race began in his home region of Murcia on stage 10, Valverde has enjoyed a very warm welcome from the local public.

"It's amazing," he told newspaper AS. "And it makes me very happy the way that people are showing their appreciation.

"That means that they liked my sporting achievements and they enjoyed the way I got them as much as I did."

While Valverde's entanglement in the Operación Puerto anti-doping investigation and his subsequent ban remains a dark spot in his career, his presence in the Vuelta for the last 20 years has been a near constant and has helped cultivate his deep-rooted popularity among Spanish fans.

With third place overall and three stage wins in his second participation in 2003, Valverde's most recent stage win came in 2019, when he finished second overall.

In 16 participations, a total only beaten by one rider, Inigo Cuesta, in Vuelta history, Valverde has netted his only Grand Tour victory in 2009, seven podium finishes (first in 2009, three second places, and three thirds) a fourth, two fifths and 12 stage wins.

His worst overall finish was this year, when he was 13th. He also took three points classifications, but curiously enough, never won the King of the Mountains classifications. 

"90 percent of what I learned was thanks to Alejandro," Mas told reporters on Saturday evening. "And after sharing a room in this year's Vuelta, I've learned even more.  He's a professional from head to toe and any young rider who wants to do it should spend a day with him."

After the Vuelta, according to AS, Movistar's ongoing battle to gain UCI points and avoid possible relegation means Valverde will not take part in the UCI Road World Championships, a victory that he rates as the most important of his career. Instead, he will pull down the curtain on his career in Il Lombardia on October 8th.

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