MADRID (VN) — Alejandro Valverde isn’t lacking self-confidence as he’s poised to return to racing later this month following his controversial two-year racing ban.
The Spanish star debuted his Movistar jersey in a press conference Wednesday and said that he’s sure he will be able to reach his former level that saw him win the Vuelta a España and Liege-Bastogne-Liege before his ban.
“I know I will win again, it’s a question of when,” he told VeloNews following a media presentation Wednesday at Madrid’s Telefonica headquarters. “I am not going to panic if a win doesn’t come in the first race or even the first few races, but I know I feel good and I am confident I will be able to perform at my old level.”
Valverde, now 32, looked trim and fit — he tips the scales at a lean 61kg — as he and defending Vuelta champion Juanjo Cobo met with three dozen members of the Spanish media along with Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué.
Valverde was caught up in a controversial ban after Italian officials matched blood samples taken during the 2009 Tour de France to blood bags held by Spanish officials dating back to the Operacion Puerto doping scandal of 2006.
Valverde has long insisted on his innocence but he refused to answer questions about the case when pressed by VeloNews.
“There’s nothing more to say about the case. Everyone knows what my opinion is and to keep talking about now won’t change anything,” he said. “It was hard at first, especially when I couldn’t race, but I’ve served my ban. Now I am only thinking about the future, with a lot of motivation to return to competition.”
His ban ended December 31 and he’s set to return to racing at the Tour Down Under, with a heavy schedule of racing that will also include the Mallorca Challenge, the Ruta del Sol, the Vuelta a Murcia, the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco before his first major goals of the Ardennes classics.
Valverde is brimming with so much confidence that he’s ready to take on Philippe Gilbert, the Belgian phenomenon who swept the Ardennes classics this year.
“Gilbert is so good he’s scary. Last year, when he attacked, it was ‘hasta luego’ and the next time you saw him was on the podium,” he said. “He will be hard to beat, especially if he’s at the same level as he was last year, but I am going to try. Those are my favorite races and they’re perfect for my characteristics.”
Following the classics, Valverde will take a break before racing the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse ahead of taking on the Tour. Once again, a confident Valverde isn’t holding back.
“I know that the Tour podium is within my reach, so why not even more?” he continued. “I know there are a lot of time trial kilometers in this Tour, but I spent a lot of time during my ban working on my time trialing. I have improved my position and my strength.”
After the Tour, Valverde will try to earn a spot on the Spanish Olympic team for London and then decide if he’ll race the Vuelta and/or the world championships in Valkenburg.
Valverde’s biggest worry seems to be the question on whether he have the depth not to go the distance, but have the kick at the end of long, grueling races of 240km and 265km.
“That’s the biggest doubt for me right, is whether I will miss that extra kick at the end of a long race,” he said. “I know I am strong right now and I am not in 100 percent form, so I am hoping that I will get that resistance in the opening races of the season to be in top shape for the season’s main goals.”
Team boss Unzué was effusive about Valverde’s return to the team. Valverde was racing with the team under the former name Illes Balears and the squad stayed in close contact with Valverde during his ban to assure his return to the fold.
“We built a solid foundation last year with the new sponsor, Movistar, but we lacked that leader that we needed to really get the big results,” Unzué said. “With Valverde and Cobo, we have two ‘cracks’ who will be able to deliver the wins that have escaped us and will put us back on the front line of the world’s best teams.”
That’s a lot of pressure on Valverde’s shoulders, but he seemed ready to take it all on and more.
“Having some time away from racing helped me realize how beautiful and grand cycling really is,” he said. “I am more motivated than ever to race again. I will be nervous when I am back at the start line, but you’re always nervous before a race. I won’t anxious at all about results; quite the opposite, I cannot wait.”
Valverde’s return should make for some interesting battles against Gilbert, especially if he’s as good as he was before his controversial exit from the sport.