Alejandro Valverde may or may not win a stage in what remains of this year’s Vuelta a España but he will leave the race with fond memories, nonetheless, of how local fans and organisers in his home region of Murcia gave him a resounding send-off on Wednesday.
The Vuelta’s one stage starting or finishing in Murcia this year began in the somewhat unglamourous surroundings of the ElPozo Alimentación meat products factory, a series of huge concrete and glass buildings dominating the skyline of the small industrial town of Alhama de Murcia.
But despite the lack of a picturesque backdrop and searing mid-morning summer heat, thousands of local fans, many of them knowing it was their last chance to see Valverde in action as a pro before his imminent retirement, nonetheless made their way to the factory gates.
Most queued in the factory car park to ensure they gained the best view inside its grounds of the signing on podium, not to mention being gifted a red ‘ElPozo’ hat into the bargain. Others waited just outside the main factory installations for riders to assemble at the startline of the stage’s neutralised section, some with banners saying “Murcia has you in its heart” or emblazoned with photos of Valverde punching the air as he crossed the finish line in the 2018 World Championships.
“It’s an opportunity you can’t miss,” Javier, a local fan who tried (unsuccessfully) to access the team bus zone for a last ‘Bala’ autograph, told Cyclingnews. “Alejandro’s been a star for so many years for us and the Vuelta has been ‘his’ race for so long, we had to see him one last time.”
For Valverde, who still lives quite near to Alhama de Murcia, the stage start and completely flat 59-kilometer segment through southern Murcia before heading onto the neighbouring region of Andalucia certainly crossed some of his usual training roads when at home. Furthemore, the Vuelta’s brief incursion into Murcia allowed the 2009 Vuelta winner, who has no less than seven podium finishes in his Grand Tour as well as 12 stage wins, to take part in a final race in his home region for one last time.
Finally after last year’s bad crash and abandon with multiple fractures just one day before the 2021 Vuelta reached Murcia, Wednesday’s ‘homage’ stage certainly set the record straight for Valverde in the right way.
For multiple reasons, then, when Valverde rode into to the start area at ElPozo at a little after midday with his teammates, it only made sense he was received with by far the biggest cheer. And as his name was called out when the team lined up on the stage, the crowd erupted in applause again.
The local hosts and the Vuelta organisers combined to honour Valverde, with Race Director Javier Guillén joining the Spanish veteran on stage, who somewhat predictably received a leg of prize ham from the ElPozo factor owners as an extra gesture towards the local hero.
“It’s a real pleasure to be here,” Valverde commented to the master of ceremonies, a message he repeated to journalists in multiple ways in the mixed zone before high-fiving the crowd on the way back to the team bus.
He was not the only Murcia-born rider to be enjoying Wednesday’s proceedings, though.
“It’s always great to be here racing on home soil, but to be doing it with one of the best rides in history, to be his teammate and be in the last Vuelta with him, it gives me goosebumps,” Movistar teammate Jose Joaquin Rojas, one of four riders from Murcia on the Vuelta this year, told the Vuelta’s official website.
“We still don’t believe he’s going to quit, but even the good times have to end. I think it’ll be a nice homage today and he’ll do brilliantly in what’s left of the Vuelta.”
Then it was all over, with Valverde taking his place in the peloton and heading south towards Andalucia. And in Madrid there will be more celebrations of the 42-year-old’s lengthy career. But maybe the Vuelta start in Murcia, on home soil, will be the one Valverde remembers the most fondly.
👋 Alhama de Murcia 📍💙🚀 Es un día muy especial para @alejanvalverde… 😊#LaÚltimaBala | #LaVuelta22 pic.twitter.com/39Zlbpk0VdAugust 31, 2022