Opinion: Alejandro Valverde might be a hero for some, but not for me

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I remember watching the 2018 UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck and a sense of dismay enveloping me as they moved towards their conclusion.

In the final lap, most of the rainbow jersey favorites retired. After the steep final ascent of Gramartboden, three riders rushed to the Austrian Olympic city to battle for the medals – Frenchman Romain Bardet, Canadian Mike Woods and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.

In the aftermath, the trio became a quartet when the Dutchman Tom Dumoulin approached them. A thought came to mind: “Anyone but Valverde.”

At the same time, I knew Valverde was almost certain to win.

Nicknamed “El Imbatido” – the unbeatable – during his amateur years, he became precisely that in situations like the final in Innsbruck, where his sprint speed always gave him the advantage, especially once he had resolved the issues his tactical ability which often meant he missed winning opportunities on his professional debut.

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The Spaniard sat at the front of the queue, watching his rivals, until with 200m to go he felt the time had come to step up. He had judged him perfectly. What had been an elusive title was finally his, with UCI president David Lappartient beaming as he helped Valverde pull on the rainbow jersey.

These anti-Balaverde the feelings – to use the nickname stemming from his ball speed when in Kelme green colors – have resurfaced over the past fortnight or so.

First at the Vuelta a España where the Spaniard, winner of the race in 2009, was presented with a guard of honor after his last appearance on his national tour. Then again at Il Lombardia last weekend, where the 42-year-old was celebrated alongside Italian great champion Vincenzo Nibali as the pair prepared to line up in their final race.

I gritted my teeth and hoped that Lombardy didn’t produce an Innsbruck-style final, a “fairytale” victory for the retired veteran.

Luckily I was spared that, but I still had to go through a huge dollop of revisionism in the build-up to Lombardy and during the race itself.

You know what I’m talking about. We all do. We must not forget that Valverde was involved in the Port case that nearly sunk the men’s professional race in 2006, that he was – and it’s still hard to believe – the only Spanish professional to have received a ban of any kind because of his links to Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the heart of the ring doping which when discovered implicated Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Thomas Dekker and others.

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With a few notable exceptions – the Cycling Podcast among them – there was barely any mention of Valverde’s involvement with Fuentes in the build-up to Il Lombardia or during the race itself. It was as if time and 133 professional wins had all but erased the fact that the Spaniard had been involved in blood doping.

There were plenty of comments that left me shaking my head, with one suggesting there were ‘rough edges in the man’s past’, but the winner of the most exaggerated tribute award came of a certain Pedro Sánchez, who posted on Twitter: “After 21 seasons and 133 victories, Alejandro Valverde is ending his career as a professional cyclist. Thank you for taking Spanish cycling to the top and for being an example of dedication, teamwork and the desire to excel. My best wishes for your next step.

Sánchez, should I add, is the current Prime Minister of Spain.

While I expect to be accused of picking up old news on Valverde, I think it’s impossible to praise him as ‘an example’. When, through judicious use of their links with the Spanish police, the Italian police managed to confirm that the blood contained in one of the bags seized during the Fuentes case belonged to Valverde and continued to prove the use of ‘EPO, the Spaniard opted for what has become the standard route for athletes in these situations, and called in his lawyers.

After a long legal battle before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the CAS upheld the two-year ban that had been imposed on Valverde by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI). This then led to the UCI imposing a two-year ban on the Spaniard covering the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

In 2012, Valverde returned to action with his Movistar team and continued his winning streak. Yet, as Andrew Hood noted in BikeNews in the wake of Valverde’s third victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2015, “It soon became clear that Valverde was not going to become a Spanish version of David Millar, the repentant ex-doper who was determined to help steering the sport in a new direction. Instead, Valverde kept his mouth shut, never provided any revealing information about his relationship with Fuentes and got back to riding his bike.

Which of these runners would you say was “an example”?

Obviously, it’s Millar, who has been outspoken about doping and has always been an advocate for clean sport. Valverde, meanwhile, kept his head down and hoped it would all go away.

To a large extent, he did.

I understand why people don’t want to keep looking back at or remembering cycling’s dark past, but trying to shut it down only makes it more likely that it will come back, that riders will turn to doping again .

You have to remember past misdeeds, you have to ask “shitty” questions.

Being aware of and accepting the past is vital for healthy sport in the future. Alejandro Valverde has never acted or even acknowledged this.

He was a hero to some, but not to me.

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