Rafael Valls came close to walking away from cycling after the 2014 season, such was the string of injury, illness, and misfortune he’d had to endure since turning professional in 2010.
2015 seemed to represent a turning point as top ten results at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya followed a victory at the Tour of Oman, but the bad luck returned in 2016 as the Spaniard endured what he describes as "the most difficult season I've ever had" in his debut campaign with Lotto Soudal.
Now heading into the 2017 season he's hoping to prove – to himself as much as anyone – that 2015 was not just a one-off. He will kick off the campaign at Tour Down Under, a race that has been cruel – a broken humerus in 2014 – but also kind – he was 8th in 2016 and 12th in 2013.
Last year's performance indicated a continuation of the form of 2015, but Valls then crashed at Strade Bianche and was ill at Tirreno-Adriatico and other key moments, abandoning at Catalunya. Then in June he suffered a freak accident at home, falling over while playing with his daughter and fracturing a shoulder bone.
He realigned his end of season objectives and was full of confidence heading into the Tour de Pologne, with high hopes for the Vuelta a Espana, but he crashed on the third stage in Poland and broke his pelvis. His season was over.
"The truth is it was the most difficult season I've ever had. I was never able to show what I'm capable of; I was never at 100 per cent. It started well at the Tour Down Under but after that I had no luck and wasn’t able to see a return on the work I'd put in," Valls told Cyclingnews at Lotto Soudal's training camp on Mallorca.
"There were lots of difficult moments. When you join a new team you always want to show your maximum - they had taken a gamble on me and I was really motivated to show what I could do. But when you have these colds, injuries, it's difficult mentally. Poland was very hard because it had happened again – after breaking the shoulder and working my way back to form, to get injured again at a moment when I had big expectations was tough to take."
Despite the psychological blows suffered over the course of 2016, the self-doubt that surfaced towards the end of 2014 doesn't seem to have returned.
"When I'm at 100 per cent I know I can be up there in week-long races," says Valls, who will change little in his preparation or race programme. "I'm carrying on working the same, and just hope for better luck and a better outcome."
Those week-long races will form the heart of Valls' campaign, and after TDU and the Cadel Evans race in Australia, he'll head to Spain for the Ruta del Sol and the Volta a Catalunya.
"Winning is a tall order," he acknowledges, "but I believe I can fight for the top 5 or top 10. If I'm at my best I can be up there."
Valls said he didn't have great legs during Lotto Soudal's winter training camp on Mallorca last month but, after a solid winter, he's quietly confident about TDU. It will set the tone for an all-important campaign. The 29-year-old still has a lot to prove to himself, but he also feels he has something to prove to his team.
"The team has always supported me 100 per cent. The truth is I have all the tranquility in the world, but I want to give back to the team because the showed faith in me and allowed me to recover and come back to 100 per cent."
There's also the small matter of his contract expiring at the end of the year, but he insists the pressure to perform only comes from within.
"Pressure? No – only that which I put on myself. I'm a rider who's constantly looking upwards, trying to improve, to do as well as I can. The rest doesn't affect me too much. What affects me is what I think of myself – for example last year the disappointment of the injuries – more than anything else. Pressure – I always put it on myself."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.