Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Valverde: Return of the Prince

This spring classics season marks the return of Alejandro Valverde from doping suspension, a rider that has divided cycling fans due to his insistence of innocence and the way his doping suspension was handed out.

We want to be clear on this: we think that Valverde is an exciting rider, and that we think his doping suspension was deserved. We are bothered by his claims of innocence, but at the same time he has served his sentence.

Valverde's "prince of Spain" special bike.

We basically look forward to thinking of him in terms of racing accomplishment.

Regardless of your opinion on the innocence or non-innocence of Valverde, it is astonishing to see a big team, Caisse d'Epargne -now- Movistar, stand behind their man unconditionally. This is the same team Reynolds that won the 1987 Tour de France with Perico Delgado, and became the legendary Banesto team that won the 1991-1995 Tours de France with Miguel Indurain, plus a host of great many grand tours and other races.

Staying cool in the face of problems

Looking at the team historically, it is clear that team manager José Miguel Echevarri and his replacement Eusebio Unzue know two things: how to win a grand tour (or eleven by our count), and how to stay cool when a rider is caught doping.

Case in point is Pedro Delgado's positive for probenecid in the 17th stage of the 1988 TdF, which he ended up winning. Despite then-TdF director visiting the team hotel to suggest that he withdraw lest the positive is made public, Delgado and Echevarri kept their cool and leaked to a friendly Spanish journalist that even though probenecid was on the IOC list, it had not yet made its way to the UCI list.

In the case of Valverde, both his team and RFEC the Spanish federation defended him almost to the end. A cat-and-mouse game between CONI the Italian federation - who was more than happy to prosecute a Spanish rider - and Valverde ensued. In the end, CONI managed to get their hands on blood samples from Valverde, which ended up being used as evidence in banning him from competing in Italy, and eventually worldwide.

Team-building pays off

Positively though, Valverde really knows how to please his sponsors and teammates. Movistar stood by him and even invited him to the team presentation before his suspension ended. They are standing by him and supporting him as team leader even if his points will not count towards the team UCI ranking for the next two years.

Upon winning the Spanish national championship, bike sponsor Pinarello saw fit to make paint him a special frame that says "Don Alejandro, Prince of Spain."

Teammates have been gushing with praise. Jose Ivan Gutierrez thinks more highly of Valverde than he does the likes of Laurent Jalabert, Abraham Olano, and Jose Maria Jimenez.

Looking ahead to the rest of the season

Putting aside the argument of whether Valverde deserves his return to the pro peloton, his return is an ominous sign to contenders of the Ardennes classics and maybe even the grand tours.

To speak of Valverde's potential in the spring classics is obvious: after all, he is twice winner of Liége-Bastogne-Liége and once winner of la Fléche Wallonne.

To speak of his potential in the grand tours is less obvious. He did win an edition of the Vuelta a Espana, but it took a lot of effort and luck, what with less TT kilometers featured in that edition.

Many wondered how long it would take Valverde to return to top levels of competition. A slow start, like one Ivan Basso the other Operacion Puerto alumni had to go through, would allow detractors to point out that without extra help the Prince is not very Princely after all.

This consideration is now moot, after a win in the Tour Down Under and another win in Paris-Nice. With his trademark grin, he pounced on the pedals of his bike to finish line glory, a familiar sight. It appears the Prince has returned. As has his affable personality, jovially joking with Simon Gerrans just past hotly contesting the Paris-Nice photo finish, giving his teammate big man-hugs, and laughing agreeably while taking questions from the press.

Compared to Alberto Contador's wide-eyed-smile-because-I-don't-fully-understand-what-you-said interview look (this seems to be used no matter in which language the interview is conducted), Valverde is by far the guy most would rather spend a drinking session with.

Up to the time of his suspension, Valverde's greatest asset is that he could climb with the best and outsprint them in the finale. TT was always his greatest weakness (and in second place, crashing).

His second greatest asset, we think, is his ability to keep cool in a hot finale. In both 2006 and 2008 editions of Liége, he was nearly off the front group, only to claw his way back and time his sprint and attack to perfection. It looks like despite lack of racing, he has kept his cool.

This third greatest asset, which few seems to notice, is his ability to get into top shape very quickly. To offer our best reasoning, recall the 2005 World championship in Madrid where he finished second to Tom Boonen. It was a long race, as all Worlds races are, yet Valverde was ridiculously strong even though he had had only one racing day since a crash injury had forced his exit from the TdF. This is a rider who can fit very, very quickly.

Looking ahead, we are left with a few questions regarding Valverde's riding level:
  1. How will he do in classics-length races? Riding and winning a 250-km race is very different from riding and winning a 180-km stage. 
  2. Last year's spring pillaging campaign of Philippe Gilbert felt as if Gilbert were riding against the entire world, and the entire world (then) was not enough to contain him. Will Valverde's participation change  everybody's approach to the Ardennes classics significantly? 
  3. How has Valverde's TT improved? Will he try to be a grand tour contender again? 
The answer to the last question may lie in wait on the slopes of the Col d'Eze ITT, mere days away. But we are not yet concerned with the TdF, as it lies far away in the future. We are more concerned with the spring classics races. Given that the Movistar team doctor has volunteered that Valverde had ridden 48,000 kilometers in the last year, we think other teams should worry.

What are your impressions of Valverde's wins so far and how do you think he will do?

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