The start of the Vuelta a Murcia, a one-day 1.1 race in southern Spain, was held in San Javier, besides a chunk of highly salted sea called Mar Menor. There was a strong wind and a relatively low temperature that made cyclists tremble. Despite these uncomfortable conditions, a significant crowd greeted the riders and, above all, cheered for its idol, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team), as they began to race.
Five hours later, standing on the podium in the city centre of Murcia, Valverde addressed the public with warming words. "This is a very special day for me, and this victory is a gift for all my fans." And the crowd went wild, clapping and shouting to praise their hero’s monumental performance in home soil.
The Vuelta a Murcia had a 180km course, rather flat both at its initial and its final sections, with three climbs to spice things up in the middle. Amongst those, the toughest one was the ascent to Collado Bermejo, famous because of some impressive exploits made by Marco Pantani back when this event was a stage race. It was right at its foot that Valverde launched his attack that, after 70km of solo effort, landed him atop the podium.
Anatomy of a 'self-homage'
When Valverde opened fire, nobody could respond. "By the time he attacked, Movistar Team had been pulling full gas for some time and the peloton had split in several groups," recounted Bahrain-Merida’s Ion Izagirre. "Most of us were already in the red. Then he accelerated. And, believe me, he went pretty fast. When I saw no one tried to follow him, I jumped and tried to chase on my own. But he was unmatchable."
Movistar director José Luis Laguía said the team did not initially want Valverde to go on his own. "Actually, the plan was for somebody else to try shake things up before him. But he decided to go first and… Well, he pulled it off," Laguía finished with a smile.
Valverde himself conceded it was a suicidal move. "We wanted to tear the race down to pieces in the Collado Bermejo, to split the peloton in groups as small as possible to render the chase difficult or impossible," he said. "But I also wanted to have some company in my winning move to not be that much time solo at the head of the race. Yet the gap got bigger and bigger, and I just decided to keep going."
At the summit of Collado Bermejo, Valverde had already built a one minute advantage that became two atop the following and last climb, the Alto de Gebas. Behind, the Lotto-Soudal team tried to organise the chase, with Tony Gallopin and Tiesj Benoot pulling of a 10-man group. “But we just didn’t understand each other as we should have done," Izagirre admitted. And so the chasers didn’t cooperate, and Valverde went definitely off the leash.
The final 40-kilometre flat spell remaining to reach the finish line was no walk in the park, though. "I had to face a very strong headwind that left me really empty,"Valverde explained with an exhausted visage. Yet he was all smiles and happiness as the backstage of the podium boiled with friends, family and media that lauded him.
"Racing is like a game for Valverde," Izagirre surrendered. "He is a classy rider, and he does these class acts when he pleases and as he pleases," Laguía was even more emphatic: "He just paid tribute to himself today. It was a self-homage."
Valverde accepted all this praise with his distinctive down-to-earth approach: "I’m glad I could pull this off to win the Vuelta a Murcia for fifth time." He still spent another half hour greeting fans, politicians and media with equal enthusiasm before heading home.
The Movistar Team rider will return to racing next Wednesday at the Ruta del Sol, where he will face a stronger field with the likes of Alberto Contador, Thibaut Pinot or Mikel Landa contending in one of the main stage-racing showdowns of the early season. "My season has already started in great fashion," he said. "I have a great victory in my pocket, so in Andalucia I will just try to do good."
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