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Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is arguably the most versatile rider in the pro peloton. He’s a winner of 14 Grand Tour stages and the 2009 Vuelta a Espana, he’s won a long list of shorter stage races and a whole swathe of Ardennes Classics, just for starters.
But despite his considerable successes — or perhaps because of them — “Balaverde” (“The Green Bullet”) remains a divisive figure. He was linked with the Operacion Puerto blood doping affair a decade ago and served a two-year ban from 2010 to 2012 as a result. Since returning from that suspension, Valverde has been even more impressive than before.
Just last month the 36-year-old made his Giro d’Italia debut, achieving his two pre-race goals of an overall podium finish and a stage victory. Today he lines up in the Spanish time trial championships where he’ll be keen to add to his 2014 success in that event.
In the lead-up to the national championships, journalist Fran Reyes caught up with Alejandro Valverde on the outskirts of Granada for a wide-ranging interview about the rider’s season so far (including his Giro debut), the months ahead (including the Tour de France and the Olympics), how he reflects on his ban from the sport, and more.
CT: How many interviews have you undergone this week?
AV: This week? None.
Are you fed up with interviews?
Right now I’m just training, so it’s no big deal to hold an interview. Talking to the media is part of my job. It’s true that most interviews have the same set of questions, so speaking to journalists ends up being kind of repetitive. But, you know, it would be worse if no one wasn’t interested in me.
Besides, I prefer this kind of interview rather than those that happen in the context of a big race. There, every outlet want a personal, exclusive interview and one is harassed on every finish line in moments where you need to catch a bit of breath instead of giving a quick analysis. It gets stressful in those circumstances.
Are you used to critical, hard questions?
Yes. And I’ve lived quite heavy years in that respect. Nowadays, most interviews are more or less calm.
I guess you’re referring to the Operacion Puerto years.
Yes. Nowadays it’s very easy for me to address that. The case is closed, the blood bags may be handed to the authorities, but there won’t be any revelations about me. I was banned on its day. I served my time. I haven’t got any reason to feel worried.
Was your sanction fair?
Well … I was given it, that’s it. I don’t know if it was fair or unfair. I just served my two years. I’ve forgot it. After that ban I’ve lived a completely new career as a cyclist, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a lot.
There aren’t footnotes to your victories anymore. No more doubts, no more questions about Puerto …
That was f***ed. That time between 2007 and 2010 … I faced lots of questions, a lot of troubles. “Will I be allowed to race the Worlds?” [His participation in Stuttgart 2007 was at stake until the day before the race – ed.] “Can I take part in the Tour de France this year?” [Pressures from different stakeholders almost left him out of the Tour several times – ed.] That was f***ed. Then my two-year ban happened.
After that, I’ve undergone a thousand antidoping tests and won a thousand races. I was a great rider before the ban and I’ve been even better after it. I think nobody doubts my performances anymore.
On the Giro d’Italia
In May you made your debut in the Giro d’Italia. After a month, what’s your assessment of the race?
I’d say it was a great race for me. I had two goals on the eve of the Giro: to win a stage and to feature on the final podium. I accomplished both. In the aftermath, I’ve analysed both my and my team’s performance and have found several mistakes.
I, for one, made a big one on the Corvara stage [stage 14, where Valverde lost three minutes to Esteban Chaves and Steven Kruijswijk, and more than 2:20 to Nibali – ed.]: altitude made me feel dizzy and I had a hard time. Setting aside that day, I’ve been fine. As for the team, I think we could have done some specific things in a different way.
Given that, I might not have finished third, but second – or first. However, I’m happy with my Giro. I could be happier, but I’m happy.
Can you elaborate what your team could have done differently?
In the Agnello stage [stage 19, which crested the Colle dell’Agenllo – ed.] we committed a very important mistake. Because of being nervous and because of all the pressure we were under, we got it wrong. Right before the summit of the Agnello, I caught two teammates I had in the breakaway. On one hand, it was very cold and foggy, so we needed to get some clothing in order to stay warm on the descent. On the other, Nibali’s group was so close, so I didn’t want to lose a single second in the chase.
I went downhill straight away, without bothering to see whether my teammates were on my wheel or not – they weren’t. Had those teammates been with me, they would have been of great help both on the descent and on the flat that preceded the next climb. José Herrada, for instance, was instrumental there by sheltering me from the headwind and limiting the time that Nibali’s group was gaining on us.
With another two teammates to help us, the story would have been completely different. However, I can’t blame my teammates for that mistake: it was a very stressful moment when we didn’t understand each other.
The performance of another of your teammates, Giovanni Visconti, was controversial. Do you think he did a good domestique job for you in the Giro?
Overall, I’m happy with his performance. I understand that, the race being held in Italy, he sometimes played his own cards and went on some breakaways pursuing a stage win. But we had a clear, common goal – me winning the Giro. And he did a good job in that respect.
As you know, the cycling world produces a lot of chit-chat. Some voices stated Visconti was in negotiations with the Bahrain team and wanted a victory to raise his stake.
I understand someone can read that between the lines and from outside the team, but I want to make clear he did a good job. He was my roommate during the race. Everything was fine between us. Of course, a lot of things can happen in three weeks – good ones and bad ones.
Twenty-one days of extreme effort with so much at stake can lead to some disputes on every team. There is no thing such as a perfect race. But I want to look at the bright side of it. I hope we will still be teammates next season.
Your time losses during the Giro happened at moments when the race reached 2,000 meters above sea level. Before the race you went on a training camp to Tenerife, but you chose to sleep on the seaside instead of atop Mount Teide as most cyclist do in order to get used to altitude. Did your body miss those weeks sleeping at altitude?
I’d say altitude was a problem for me only in the Corvara stage. The best part of it was over 1,800 meters, an altitude were oxygen starts to be scarce. It’s true I haven’t done any training camp at altitude, but I’ve climbed a lot in training. Anyway, you never know.
Maybe I would have lost that time regardless had I slept in altitude while in Tenerife. Because to take advantage of altitude one has to be very used to it, like Nibali or the Colombians are.
Do you regret not having done any training camp in altitude?
Not at all. During the Giro I was in perfect shape and at ease. I was good in the mountains, even when peaking at 2,700 meters – such as we did on the last alpine stage. I even performed better than Chaves there.
On the Tour de France
Is it going to feel weird to take part in the Tour without contending for the GC?
Yes, because it is going to be the first time in quite a while that I will compete in a Grand Tour, or even in a big race in general, without any pressure. I am going to lose time on a flat stage if I feel like that, and it won’t matter. It will be strange and, at the same time, I’m keen to experiment with it.
I’ll be fresher in the mountains and in a better condition to support the bid of my teammate Nairo Quintana for the Tour victory. I’ll be in a better position even to try and grab a stage win. But my priority will always be to support the team’s goals.
I’m positive that, if I’m part of a breakaway, and Nairo attacks from the peloton and it is convenient that I stop to give him a hand, I will do it. And I’m sure this scenario is going to occur several times during the race. It won’t be a problem for me to let a stage victory go in order to work for Nairo.
Is Nairo Quintana going to win the Tour de France?
He is on the right path to do so. Not only because of his physical shape – because of the psychological shape, too. He won the Volta a Catalunya, was third at Vuelta al País Vasco, and won again at Tour de Romandie. So his season is already a success.
He will be able to enjoy the Tour de France the same way he enjoyed the Route du Sud because everything is going great for him.
What’s the difference between Nairo Quintana and the rest of the great riders you’ve known?
He has got class plus ambition. He is demanding both with himself and with his teammates. He is a natural born winner and is even a better competitor when things go wrong. He has a cool head and measures every little thing he does. That’s the difference: he has a gifted mindset.
On the Rio Olympic Games
After the Tour, you’ll head to Rio for the Olympic Games Road Race. What do you expect from that event?
The course will be the key. It is very tough and suits me perfectly. It’s going to be a hard race – harder than any recent Olympic Games or World Championships. It won’t be a matter of attacks, but of resilience. Those who resist the longest will contend for victory. That said: it will take some luck for me to win.
Everything ought to to be perfect. Teams will only comprise five riders and, in Spain, we are going to have at least three candidates for victory in [Alberto] Contador, Purito [Joaquim Rodriguez] and myself. It won’t be me to rule the team or the tactics. It’s up to Javier Mínguez, the Spanish national coach, to define that.
Would earning a gold medal make up for that World Championship you’ve never won?
It definitely would. The Olympics are as much as one can aspire for as a sportsman. The only difference for us cyclists is we don’t get to wear a distinctive jersey. Regardless of that, the doors that a victory at the Olympic Games can open don’t compare to those the Worlds do.
Last question about this season. Will you race the Vuelta a España?
We’ll decide after the Tour de France. If the Vuelta route had more stages in the south of Spain, I wouldn’t have a doubt because I love to compete at home. [Valverde was born in the Southern region of Murcia – ed.] Being the best part of the three weeks in the north, I might be less keen on taking part. Besides, there will be some teammates that may fancy to participate in the Vuelta and it might be convenient for me to let one of them fill my spot.
Let’s talk about some other topics. What’s your take on Carlos Betancur?
He’s got a great engine. The only problem is his weight issues. With some extra kilos he can shine and even win, but he has to get over them to become as great as he can be. I think a Grand Tour is within his reach – maybe not the Tour, but the Giro or the Vuelta.
I think he is on the right team to fulfil his potential. He might even take over my status within the team after my retirement.
Was the Giro d’Italia too much for him after such a difficult winter?
Maybe. Everything has been so fast for him recently. He lost a lot of weight in a brief period of time, then raced a lot … He came to the Giro with a lot of confidence in his possibilities, but suddenly realised he was going to struggle. He even fell ill, which is a sign of weakness. Luckily, he’s got time to rest and recover in time for the Vuelta a España.
A couple of years ago you set up a youth team in your region, Valverde Team. Will it step up to the under 23 ranks in 2017?
I’d love it to. I’m thrilled with this project – and so are all the people that are helping me with it. I wish to have an U23 team next year. And why not a professional team in the future? But, you know, we have to progress step-by-step. Every year we are developing the structure in such a tidy, adequate fashion.
When I quit racing, I’d love to work with the kids. Nowadays I can’t do it because of my obligations, but I’m eager to do it.
This year you were set to debut on the Tour of Flanders, but in the end it didn’t happen. Will you race there some day?
Of course! I would love to. The thing is this year it didn’t fit my build-up for the Giro. Had I participated in Flanders, I wouldn’t have had as much time to train in Tenerife and my Giro would have been worse, for sure.
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modelling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF