I can’t help being fascinated by Alejandro Valverde.
Not in the way that I’m fascinated by space travel, or Indian cooking, for example; interests which are filled with philosophical wonder and unfathomable depths, and fully deserving of fascination.
No, I’m fascinated in Valverde because I spend a fair chunk of my time watching him ply his trade, and I no longer have any idea what I actually think of him.
It used to be simple.
Towards the end of the 2000’s Valverde was the Spanish lad with a murky past. He’d been the subject of doping allegations, and a UCI ban that was later overturned, and was finally suspended from racing for two years from 2009. He maintained his innocence, quietly served his time, and returned to win a Grand Tour: the Vuelta Espana in 2012.
So far, so pro-cycling.
And that was how I liked it, because I knew where to pigeon-hole him: the pantomime villain, the ex-doper in a sport full of ex-dopers, and just another bike rider to add to the list of ‘anyone but him’.
I can often live with the grey areas of ex-dopers in pro-cycling if they admit what they’ve done and show a bit of good old-fashioned human contrition, but there’s never been any sign of this from Valverde. He comes across as cold, calculating, clinical, professional, and just a little bit joyless.
So what’s changed?
Flick on Eurosport in January and there he is, in the sunshine of Australia, impassive and probably on the podium. Through the Spring Classics in the wind and rain of northern Europe that deep mahogany tan might be fading slightly, but he’ll win a big race or two. Come the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France, or maybe even both, he’ll be up there – not winning against the likes of Froome, Quintana and Contador, but not far off.
In September it’s the Vuelta Espana, that Spanish tan is fully bedded in again, and he soaks up the sunshine and glides across the parched territory like a lycra-clad lizard. In La Vuelta, Alejandro is in his element, and seems to be even slightly playful and carefree, attacking for fun.
From there he moves on to contend at the sharp end of the World Championships, and has a good crack at winning Il Lombardia, before mopping up the odd late season jaunt to Beijing, perhaps, or Abu Dhabi.
And all year I watch him tucked in behind other riders in that crouched style, sitting on someone else’s wheel, saving his energy and refusing to do his share, waiting to attack when his opponents weaken. That familiar shake of the head to say “no, I’m not coming through, keep pedalling my friend.”
Where once I was dismissive I find myself, against my better judgement, appreciating him for what he is: a relentless man for all seasons, metronomically consistent, and a big race winner. My view of him as a defensive and cautious rider and an incessant wheel-sucker is not (quite) right.
I’ve always seen him like that, because I’ve never liked him, but look at his results: he’s won the Vuelta Espana, he’s a three time Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, he’s won Fleche Wallone three times, he’s won the overall at the Criterium du Dauphine…
The list goes on.
His dodgy past is his dodgy past, but he’s become increasingly hard to dismiss. I might even have a grudging respect for him.
And then I remember the time he (apparently…perhaps?!) defied Spanish national team orders, and (allegedly) assisted his Portuguese trade-team colleague Rui Costa to win the World Championship road race in 2013, ahead of fellow Spaniard, team-mate, and monumentally popular veteran Joachim Rodriguez.
And the final stage of the 2015 Vuelta Espana – traditionally a procession into Madrid – where he snatched the points classification jersey from, again, Rodriguez – not against the rules of cycling, but arguable against the spirit.
And his tight-lipped refusal to acknowledge and confront his wrongdoing as a convicted doper.
And his incessant wheel-sucking…!
Oh that’s it, it’s all coming back to me now…
I’ve gone right off him again.