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by Caley Fretz
October 1, 2018
Photography by Kristof Ramon
Hunched over a couple off-season beers a few years ago, a pro racer said something that’s stuck with me ever since. He said, “Valverde’s just better.”
It was a statement without value judgment or opinion. Just fact. He gave a little shrug. Had a sip of beer, and went on: “You know when you ride with someone who’s just faster? You know how you can always tell? He’s just faster.”
He wasn’t defending Valverde, or wiping clean his checkered past, or making accusations, either. It was a statement of neither support nor malice. It was like remarking on the existence of the moon. Hey, there it is, up there. It goes away sometimes but then it comes back. Just like Valverde.
This is uncommon in cycling, because a word like “faster” is entangled in context. Particularly when it comes to a rider like Valverde.
The source of the speed is the question. It’s one cycling has grappled with for decades, through too-long periods of blind credulity and some of cynical incredulity, too. The question of the speed’s source is existential at this point; generally unanswerable and largely unprovable. We all have our opinions. We all know how we feel about Sunday, about Valverde specifically and about his generation broadly.
I wish Valverde hadn’t won. Not because I hold any particular animosity toward the man, but because his victory set this sport’s collective hands a-wringing and kicked off the type of utterly useless pontification you see in the paragraph just above this one. That paragraph, I tell you, is crap. There’s one like it on every English language cycling website on Earth right now.
But when it comes to Valverde, what else can we do but pontificate? The source of the speed is inescapable.
Valverde never said, ‘Hola amigos, lo siento por los blood bags.’ He served his two-year ban in truth-crushing silence. Somehow, he came back from the ban … faster? He won a stage in his first post-ban race, rising up from his handlebars at the line like a human middle finger.
He has raced in 12 world championships and been on the podium seven times. He lost, barely, to Tom Boonen in 2005 and Igor Astarloa in 2003. The was third three years in a row, in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He’s won grand tours and bunch sprints. He is faster. He has been faster since he was a teenager.
The pro I spoke to was resigned to Valverde’s speed. He didn’t know where it came from. For him, it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that when Valverde wanted to drop him, he could. Every time.
I wish Valverde hadn’t won because the riders he beat weren’t on Kelme in 2004. That means if any of them had won we’d be talking about the ride, the tactics, their stories. We’d be talking about the first Canadian winner if Mike Woods had done it. We’d be talking about how stylish Romain Bardet’s world champs kit would look. (He’d go black shorts, I’m sure of it.) We’d be talking about the versatility of Tom Dumoulin, and how hard he fought to catch back on. We’d be talking about how one man was faster than all the rest, and the very concept of victory wouldn’t be automatically tainted by history.
Instead, we pontificate. We argue. We take a joyful moment, a beautiful moment, and question it. And that, more than anything else, is the legacy Valverde’s generation leaves on cycling.