It’s almost over. 20 years after he started his first ever Vuelta a España and now well into his third decade as a professional rider, Alejandro Valverde will roll down the start ramp on Friday evening in his last Grand Tour.
There is a certain sense of closure, too, that the Vuelta will start in the Netherlands, as it was the starting point for the same race where the Movistar leader took his one and (to date) only Grand Tour victory. Add in a further six podium finishes (the most recent in 2019 and the earliest in 2003), as well as 12 stage wins, and if it’s fair to say that if the Vuelta has all but defined Valverde as a stage racer, at times he has become emblematic of the Vuelta, too.
Ever the realist, Valverde ruled out one last throw of the dice at the overall, however, in his last ever Grand Tour, saying a good result for him would consist of “avoiding crashes and staying healthy and helping the team, while taking a stage win would be great, too.”
He also had words of motivation for his teammate Enric Mas, last year’s Vuelta runner-up who is back in the race. However, after becoming mentally ‘blocked’ by repeated issues with descending following crashes, Mas was notably cautious in his segment of the Movistar pre-race press conference about repeating his GC bid.
“We’ve talked a lot, but without going into too much detail and opening up the wound even further. I told him that he’s got the form and the class and you don’t lose that from one day to the next,” Valverde said.
“There are difficult moments in life and sport, but the same has happened to me and you get through it. From what I can see, he’s happier, more confident, and in any case, the Vuelta is a very different race to the Tour.”
Valverde contradicted his team manager Eusebio Unzué, too, who had told a Spanish newspaper after the Tour that Mas had not been mature enough as a leader. “Maybe the pressure got to him a bit as it was his first time as sole leader in a Grand Tour,” Valverde argued, “but we’re all human at the end and I think he’s ready for that challenge.”
It’s no surprise that the Vuelta is the Grand Tour that Valverde likes the most and his main goal in his final three-week race is to enjoy it.
So, with that in mind, he is determined that distractions such as Movistar’s ongoing battle to amass enough UCI points to remain in the WorldTour should not affect his racing or the team’s overall strategic approach in the Vuelta, either.
“The points system [that determines relegation – Ed.] is there and we can’t ignore it,” Valverde, who found himself being lined up for minor races mid-season as part of Movistar’s campaign for WorldTour survival, said. “But we have to concentrate on things on a sporting level and forget the rest.
“The system isn’t well-balanced, with smaller races nobody’s heard of offering a lot of points and the other way round in the bigger ones. It’s causing us a big headache in the team at the end of this year, but I hope we get through it and can concentrate on the racing.”
‘There has to be a beginning and an end to everything’
While the ongoing relegation fight is causing a great deal of uncertainty among teams, Valverde said that – no matter the outcome of the Vuelta for him personally – even if it went brilliantly he will be hanging up his wheels at the end of the year.
“The first half of the season went very well, but the second half, where I had a lot of bad luck, hasn’t been as good as I wanted,” Valverde said, pointing out that he was not only the victim of a hit-and-run this summer while training but also had bronchitis.
“I just want to do as well as I can here in the Vuelta and enjoy the public’s support as this is definitely my last Grand Tour and my last year. There has to be a beginning and an end to everything. That’s not going to depend on my performance here.”
As for a possible GC challenge, Valverde stated categorically that he was “ruling that out. I’m not in a bad place, but to be up there with the best for 21 days, it’s not going to happen. And we’ve got a teammate who can be up there in the top three and, why not, maybe win.
“So we have to concentrate on that and help him 100 percent even if I do see myself as possibly fighting for a stage win at some point. But that’s all there is.”
Valverde recollected that when he was last in the Vuelta in the Netherlands back in 2009, that was the start of his one successful bid for victory in a Grand Tour. But if 13 years on, Valverde was ’98 percent sure’ he would not get another victory, he said he’d been telling his teammate and roommate Mas, he should have a go at GC at the least.
Mas himself didn’t seem so convinced, saying simply during the same press conference that he had been doing a ‘reset’ since quitting the Tour, but it was by no means yet complete. With that in mind, not to mention a brief spell of doubting whether he’d go for the Vuelta at all, currently his going for the GC was neither ruled out nor ruled in.
“I had a week of rest, and three training, and since Monday we’ve been here in Holland, so we’ll go for it day by day,” he argued. “We’ll just have to see how it all goes.”
However, he warned that he still “had a long way to go before being the same Enric as before,” and he had been working behind the scenes, including seeking professional advice, on how best to handle his mental issues. But racing the Vuelta, far from being something he’d been pressured to do despite Movistar’s ongoing points issues, was a good place to start another big chapter in the process.
“It’s the home race, where I’ve always felt most comfortable. I hope that something will click, and I start to feel sure of myself again.”
Meanwhile Valverde recognised he will have his own period of adaptation when one of the longest professional careers in the sport’s history finally ends this December, but he argued that he was sure he would get through it.
“It won’t be hard,” he said. “My head is already telling me I shouldn’t be suffering so much on the bike.
“I’ve got two years more signed up with the team, so we’ll have to decide what role I play, with them. But there’s another life to come.”
Before that, though, Valverde has one more Vuelta a España to ride.