By Robbie Broughton
Alejandro Valverde’s win at the worlds on Sunday was the crowning moment in the Spaniard’s career. It was his twelfth attempt after being on the podium with two bronze and two silvers in the past and was surely the sweetest of his 122 victories as a pro. But ‘Bala’ (‘Bullet’ in Spanish) has proved to be somewhat of a controversial recipient of the World Champion’s jersey who reminds some commentators of cycling’s murky past. Is he a worthy wearer of the Rainbow Stripes?
When the 2008 Tour de France briefly passed through Italy a blood sample taken from Valverde by the Italian authorities found it matched one of the blood bags seized by the Operation Puerto raid from two years earlier:
“…blood bag number 18, scientific evidence that such blood contained EPO, DNA evidence that clearly demonstrated that blood bag 18 contained Mr Valverde’s blood.”
The result was a two year ban, starting in 2010, that could have been the end of his career but his response was, “I will return to cycling and I will continue to win.” In his enforced absence from racing the Movistar doctor claimed that Bala was clocking up 48,000km a year on his bike and was doing 3,000 sit ups a day. At 60kg he was whippet thin on his return to the peloton and he immediately won a stage at the 2012 Tour Down Under, stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de France as well as finishing second behind Alberto Contador at that year’s Vuelta.
It was quite a comeback that had a few shaking their heads and, without an apology, an admission of any kind or a repentant comment, there remained a cloud of suspicion over his head.
Just this year, Cillian Kelly, the prominent cycling journalist and anti-doping campaigner posted on Twitter, in disbelief rather than admiration that, “Alejandro Valverde has not finished outside the top 50 of any race, or any stage of any race since March 2016. That includes every stage of all three Grand Tours in 2016.”
GCN’s Dan Lloyd even went as far to claim that he thought Valverde’s World Championship win was bad for the sport and that, until his generation of riders have retired, there will always be question marks about cycling’s claims to be clean.
So it is that many in the cycling community still appear unwilling to forgive him. Some, but not all: Philippe Brunel is probably the most feted and respected cycling reporter in the world. Regarded as the great historian of the Tour de France, this L’Equipe journalist’s writing is characterized by an elegant style that combines a romanticism of the sport with incisive knowledge and astute comment. Riders are likened to literary characters and races described with all the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s won him numerous cycling journalism awards in France.
Reflecting on more than 30 years’ experience following the Tour and Giro to Peloton Magazine he observed that, “I always thought cycling was a real key to reading existence. In three weeks of racing you know who is who. You see instantly who is faithful and who isn’t. In life it might take you 20 years to understand that a friend is unfaithful.”
Brunel’s declaration that Sunday’s world championship win was “the redemption of Valverde,” carries quite a bit of weight. He may have crossed the finish line by half a bike length in a Spanish kit that resembled “ratatouille paint ball” lycra but he was soon, “dressed like a prince in rainbow colours,” when Peter Sagan handed over the prized jersey.
For all the doubters, you can probably double their number with Valverde supporters. And this is why: he has been one of the most consistent performers in pro cycling both before and since his ban. He races all season long – this year, at the age of 38, he has completed 77 race days. He’s one of the most liked personalities in the cycling community with a relaxed and easy-going character. Vicente Reynes, a former pro who rode with him at Banesto told us, “He was even doing jokes in the bus after a stage and, hell, I was dead!”
He can win Classics, mountain stages, outsprint sprinters and contend for the GC among the very best. But for many, it’s his guile and wiley racing strategy that he’s most admired and respected for. Sunday’s race was a classic case in point – anonymous for the majority of the race, he picked his moment to go for it. And when Bardet and Woods saw who they had for company, their hearts would have sank.
The fact is, pure and simple, that Valverde has always been the bike racer’s racer. There’s so much to admire: his tactical nous, his determination to come back from both a ban and career threatening injury, his continuing attempts at the world title for over a decade, that pure fighting spirit, his easy charm. Unlike a recent Grand Tour winner he has bags of personality.
Bala has said that he’d like to show off the World Championship Jersey at Lombardia this October, the last of the season’s Monuments. I, for one, will be cheering him on and look forward to him gracing the peloton in his Rainbow Stripes. And for him to win this Monument – what a way to show off those colours that would be! Whatever cycling’s past, you can’t condemn a man forever. Let’s celebrate Valverde as World Champion.