More than four months have passed since Alejandro Valverde was last seen in race action, when the Movistar rider ploughed at high speed into a crash barrier on the opening time trial of the Tour de France, smashing one of his knee caps and breaking a talus bone in his ankle.
There were widespread fears that evening that Valverde's career was finished, but in his first major press conference since the accident, the 37-year-old said that he is raring to go again and will once more target the Ardennes Classics in the first part of the season. The only permanent legacy of that crash, Valverde hopes, will be the four screws in his leg used to pin his injuries, given he does not plan to have them removed. But his goals in the first part of the 2018 season are already set, and they are no less ambitious than before.
"It's very difficult, but I would like to win a fifth Liege-Bastogne-Liege next season, more than winning Amstel Gold for the first time," Valverde told reporters at the Movistar team meeting near Pamplona. "A fifth Liege would make the same number of wins as Eddy. [Merckx.]"
Valverde's run of Ardennes wins now means he is already the all-time record holder for Fleche Wallonne, with five – "and if I can get a sixth, even better," he added with a grin – and he currently stands only one short of Merckx's all-time record in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. At an age when many riders have long opted for retirement, Valverde's decision to come back from such major injuries and continue racing puts him in a class of his own in other ways, too.
"We all know what has happened to me and I don't feel tired, or weary, neither in my head nor in my body. I don't feel like I'm 37, I feel ten years younger," Valverde insisted.
"I've done about 6,000 kilometres in training. My idea was, once I started training, to reach as good a form as I possibly could and that's what I've done. I feel as if I started racing, I would be close to fighting for a win.
"But now I'm going to rest, take a break as if I had raced, so I'll take seven or eight days off to come back from zero and begin the new season."
Valverde was so keen to get back into training after his injury that he started when he was still unable to use a racing shoe. "When I had a break I'd leave the [surgical] 'boot' I was using strapped onto the bike," he said. "And so it went on, little by little. It was all a question of little by little, with the knee and the ankle slowly improving.
"But now I can train, sprint, I've got the same power output as before, so it's going very well. My injured leg is weaker than the other, but with the winter ahead, I'll work out in the gym to be at 100 percent."
Valverde is not, he said, afraid that there could be any long-term effects. "If you'd asked me six weeks ago, I'd have said I wasn't sure if I could be the same. But now I'm doing 700 kilometres a week, pushing myself hard and the next day I feel good. That's a sign I'm doing well."
The worst moments came immediately after the crash in Dusseldorf. "I looked down at my knee and thought 'I can forget about riding a bike again.' Those 15 minutes on the ground, waiting for the ambulance were the worst. Once I was at the hospital, and they started explaining how I could recover, I felt hopeful again. And my objective is simple now: to win again," Valverde said.
"I don't know if my first win will be in January, February, March or April. I don't want to sound boastful, but I don't think it'll be long coming."
Valverde's idea, he said, is to have a usual race program, starting with a few days in Mallorca, going onto the Vuelta a Andalucia – where he also holds the record number of wins – a day of home racing in the Tour of Murcia, and then the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Ardennes Classics.
From that point on, he has yet to decide if he will form part of a three-pronged attack by Movistar on the Tour with Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa, or if he will return to the Giro d'Italia, where he finished third in 2016. "I could do Giro-Tour, Tour-Vuelta or Giro-Vuelta. From my point of view, I don't mind. Although I like the Tour route, I have to say."
The second part of the season, in any case, will likely be focussed on the World Championships, which has a very hilly course. It's a race where Valverde holds another record: six podium finishes, but as yet no victory. But for Valverde, his first triumph of 2018 – returning to racing – is now just a few weeks away.
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