In the latest How the hell … Journal Velo poses a question that a lot of us are asking ourselves (particularly here in VeloVoices Towers) and which should really put the cat amongst the pigeons of our readers. He puts the pantomime villain of racing under the microscope to ask: How the hell has Alejandro Valverde grown on me?
For most of this decade, I’ve had a motto when it comes to stage races. ABV. Anyone But Valverde.
He’s the banned-for-two-years, dog-called-Piti, Operation-Puerto-named, connections-to-a-dodgy-doctor, couldn’t-go-to-Italy rider. Nothing there that was going to make me warm to him. But it wasn’t just his murky past. It felt like he took most of his wins by hanging around at the back of a small group: never taking a turn at the front; not expending too much energy; hitting the front a few hundred metres out, when everyone else is burnt out, and sprint to victory.
There’s nothing illegal, or even wrong, with winning that way. It’s just not the swashbuckling style that would be pleasing to the eye. And when that eye is jaundiced by his history, it’s never going to see any of the good stuff. And yet as we approach the interesting stage races of this year (including next week’s Volta a Catalunya), I find myself looking forward to seeing him race. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be cheering him on too.
So how the hell did Alexandro Valverde grow on me?
The first time I can remember putting aside my cynicism was the 2014 Roma-Maxima. No wheel-sucking here. He hit the front with Domenico Pozzovivo at 35km to go and timed the win perfectly. Valverde always looked stronger than Pozzovivo. He stayed in control and coolly measured his last sprint to hold off the chasing pack.
Since that race, I started more and more to notice Valverde as a rider who attacks but rarely in vain. He’s someone with a great grasp of how a race is playing out. He can spot the weaknesses in others but doesn’t over-estimate his own strengths. Watch him and you’ll see an intelligence and sharpness which he deploys with aplomb.
A rider who seems to get better as he approaches 40 would normally get me stroking my chin – especially someone with his history. But I’m enjoying the way he’s besting riders five and ten years younger than himself. Yes, a lot of it is physical – he’s in good shape – but he’s smarter too. He’s like an old heavyweight boxer taking on the new kid on the block. He stands there watching his opponent use up all his energy, then lands the knockout blow he’s had in his locker all the time.
Finally I also have an element of sympathy for him. That Stage 1 crash on the Tour de France last year was horrible. Especially when expectations were high for what he could achieve on a Valverde-friendly course. To see him come back this year with no obvious ill-effects and win in Valencia was good to see.
So what started as hate-mail has ended up as a love-letter.
How the hell has Alexandro Valverde grown on me? Mainly because he’s a great bike racer.