For Alejandro Valverde, the World Championships have always been the one that got away. It was always within touching distance but slithered away just beyond reach when he got too close. But after six previous visits to the Worlds rostrum, more than any other rider in the 91-year history of the road race, the Spaniard finally found the right formula to win the rainbow jersey in Innsbruck.
At 38, Valverde is the second-oldest rider to don the stripes after Joop Zoetemelk, who was almost 39 by the time he won his one and only world title in 1985. Like Zoetemelk, the jersey had been a long time in the making and Valverde burst into tears after he crossed the line.
"This is the victory that I have longed for. I have always wanted to be the World Champion. I was also chasing the Tour de France but I wasn't able to, but finally I am the World Champion," Valverde said in his post-race press conference, which was attended by Spanish former World Champion Oscar Freire.
"There have been other times at the World Championships where I have had the fortune of riding with teammates that have won the world title, like Oscar, wearing it myself is great.
"I have cried many times but the truth is that it was a really emotional moment to be the world champion. I have been chasing it forever and I have got six medals but I could never take the gold. Finally getting it feels incredible. I have to thank the Spanish national team, we did a training camp together on the Sierra Nevada before this race and it really helped. We really had a good vibe, we knew where each other were throughout the whole race and they have been a great support to get this victory."
Amidst the joy and relief for Valverde, his win will, of course, be met with scepticism given that he served a two-year ban for doping following the Operacion Puerto investigation and has refused to admit guilt or discuss doping.
Valverde looked comparatively comfortable as he rode up the brutally steep Hôll climb with Romain Bardet and Michael Woods. Far and away the best sprinter of the trio, neither Woods nor Bardet were willing to take Valverde to the line in the final two kilometres, despite Tom Dumoulin closing in and eventually catching them.
"When I saw Dumoulin coming onto our wheel, I thought someone is losing his medal because after all it was another rival to beat and he is a very difficult one because he can surprise with an attack from afar," explained Valverde.
In the final kilometre, Valverde was pinned on the front, forced to lead out the sprint as the others knew this was their only chance, but he kept riding knowing that more riders could be coming from behind.
"Of course I would have preferred to be in the second or third position to control the moves of my rivals but I was first and I didn't know who was coming behind and how far they were. I just decided not to stop and only ease up a bit to keep something in my legs for the final sprint. At 300 metres to go, I saw that they weren't moving so I took this as my opportunity to launch the sprint."
Valverde came into the Innsbruck Worlds as one of the top favourites, alongside Julian Alaphilippe but it had been four years since he'd visited the podium when he took bronze in Ponferrada in 2014. He had finished fifth in Richmond the following season and has not raced the competition since with the 2016 course not suited to him and a horrible crash at the 2017 Tour de France ruling him out of the rest of the season.
There were times that Valverde thought that it would not come and though Innsbruck was a huge opportunity for him, he tried to treat it like any other race.
"I thought about it several times, but I wasn't obsessed about this race and goal any more. I just came here every year hoping to do my best. It was difficult to reach the goal because I was one of the favourites it made it harder. Luckily, everything came together this year with the course, the weather and the team.
"Whatever followed after my crash in the Tour de France last year has been a real gift for me. I was afraid that the crash was going to be career ending. I wasn't confident that I would recover after it but I was able to return to racing in good shape and get the rainbow jersey. Whatever comes next is a gift."
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