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Just under one year ago Alejandro Valverde crashed out of the Tour de France on the opening day, hitting the ground at high speed during the opening time trial and fracturing his kneecap and ankle. Now, with the 2018 race on the horizon, the Spaniard has spoken about his triumphant return to racing, his build-up to the event plus his and his team’s prospects in the Tour.
“The season has gone extremely well so far,” said Valverde on Thursday, speaking via a team communication. “Not only because of the results, but also considering where I come from, after such a serious crash last year. My legs felt incredibly well already since Mallorca, and victories did not take long to start coming.”
Valverde took the overall in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, the Abu Dhabi Tour, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and La Route d’Occitanie. “I’ve got already 11 [wins] this year. I’ve won all four stage races I’ve been at this season – one could say this is almost impossible to match.”
After Liège-Bastogne-Liège he took seven days off the bike, then resumed training and went to Sierra Nevada for mountain training. He had planned to do the Tour de Suisse but picked up a flu-like infection and missed the race, riding and winning La Route d’Occitanie instead.
“I’ll be reaching the Tour de France in similar form to previous years, yet maybe with a bit less of racing form,” he said. “That should help me get to the race fresher, especially because I raced quite less after the Ardennes. It will help me, because the second part of the season will be packed, with the Vuelta a España and a big goal for me: the World Championships.”
Valverde insists that his crash of last year won’t hugely influence how he feels about returning to the Tour; rather, he insists that riding the race is a high point in its own right. He doesn’t have something to prove because of his fall.
However, when he does reflect on the 2017 edition, he recognises the turmoil of emotions it brought.
“You go through happiness, sadness… but my worst moment was last year’s crash, barely six kilometres after taking the start into a Tour where I was feeling great,” he said. “It’s over now – everyone has seen I’m doing great, and I’m happy to be back.”
When the flag drops, Valverde will begin the race sharing leadership with Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa. The former has won the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, and has placed second, second and third overall in the Tour. As for Landa, he was fourth in last year’s Tour despite riding for his-then team leader Chris Froome.
All three are big guns in the sport. Valverde assessed his teammates’ chances. “We can’t really say anything new about Nairo at this point. He’s a big Tour contender. He must not get obsessed with this, yet he’s got a Tour win in his legs.
“Landa has always ridden behind another leader’s shadow, but he’s already shown to be strong enough to win a Grand Tour.”
Valverde gives the route a thumbs up, believing it suits his characteristics. He is also satisfied with his condition, and feels that he could well shine. “I’m focused on what we want to do. I want to do well, should it be working for Nairo and Mikel or rather, if the race asks us to do so, taking on bigger responsibility and fulfilling the team’s goals,” he said. “I feel like my current form should be good to be up there with the top contenders.”
But what of possible strife within the team? Valverde and Quintana have gelled well in the past, but Landa has been accused by some of being a rider who looks out for himself and doesn’t always follow team orders. That may or may not be the case, but it’s fair to say that some top-heavy teams haven’t always performed optimally in the past.
Yet Valverde believes that things are going to work just fine. “There won’t be any problems into the team,” he insisted. “We will get on well with each other. Besides, this year’s Tour route suits well our strategy of having three leaders.
“There are some short stages, many difficult days… Launching one of us on the attack will hurt our rivals and create some uncertainty. We have to play those cards.
“I don’t know if we’ll win, but surely we’ll offer some fireworks.”