Alejandro Valverde eyes Tour glory
The Spaniard has bagged victories in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Dauphiné Libéré pre-Tour warm-up event and Talavera de la Reina and is now hungry for more success.4 July 2008
MADRID - With 2007's Tour de France champion Alberto Contador barred from this year's race and 2006 winner Óscar Pereiro seemingly destined to remain cycling's equivalent of a one-hit wonder, the path may be clear for another Spaniard to seek victory in the sport's greatest event, which starts Saturday in Brest.
Alejandro Valverde goes into this year's race with a sparkling record of early-season successes, even though the Murcian has enjoyed a lighter workload than usual so far in 2008.
The Caisse d'Epargne team rider has won Belgium's Liège-Bastogne-Liège one-day classic, the week-long Dauphiné Libéré pre-Tour warm-up event, and last weekend he proved his excellent form by coming home first in the Spanish road-race championship in Talavera de la Reina.
But victories in the early-season classics are nothing new for Valverde. What is missing from the 28-year-old's trophy cabinet is victory in one of the sport's three majors: the Vuelta a España, Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France.
In the Spanish event, he has finished second, third and fourth, but has been less fortunate in grand boucle, failing to finish on a couple of occasions due to injury and a fall. In 2007, he was a discreet sixth.
"My goal is the Tour. And, if I avoid bad luck, I can win it," he said a few weeks ago from his Sierra Nevada training camp in Granada.
With the shadow cast on the sport by the 2006 Operation Puerto doping scandal - in which several national and foreign cyclists were implicated - having receded for the time being, Spanish cycling is once again on a roll.
This is mainly thanks to the emergence of Alberto Contador, who took over the leader's yellow jersey in l2007's Tour after Michael Rasmussen was removed from the race by his Rabobank team.
The young Madrileño never looked back and has since gone on to take victory in this year's Giro. However, Contador's Astana team is an unwelcome guest for Tour organisers, owing to its checkered past in doping controls.
With the reigning champion sitting this one out, there is almost certainly going to be a new winner rolling down the Champs-Élysées come 27 July.
Among those tipped to make Valverde's life difficult are former Giro champion Damiano Cunego of Italy, the Australian runner-up in the 2007 Tour Cadel Evans, veteran Russian and twice-Vuelta champion Denis Menchov, and the dark horse from Luxembourg, Andy Schleck, who is making his debut in the Tour after finishing second in the 2007 Giro.
So what could make the difference this time for Valverde, who has in the past faded in the sport's more gruelling events despite the explosive talent which can make him unbeatable on any given day?
Perhaps the secret is a new-found relaxation in his Sierra Nevada hideaway. One night during his recent training period there, he decided to go down to Granada to see a movie, not returning until the wee hours of the morning. Another day, blighted by fog, saw the cyclist preferring to stay in the hotel and play pool instead of putting in the miles out on the road.
"This is magnificent; it's a sign of character," says Valverde's physical trainer and Caisse d'Epargne medic Jesús Hoyos. "Before, he would get stressed out if he couldn't train one day, and then end up overdoing it. Now he knows his body - he knows how to listen to it and what it needs."
"Now I go to races with hunger to eat up the course," the cyclist says. "I have competed so little that I will go to the Tour with less than 30 days [of racing time] and mentally very fresh because for the first time I'm not being harassed over Operation Puerto."
But what about the inclusion of dreaded Pyrenean peak Hautacam in this year's Tour?
"The good thing is that it comes in the first week when I'll be at my strongest," the rider replies. The question remains whether Valverde can finish as strongly.
[El Pais / C. Arribas / J. B. / Expatica]