Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) returns to the Tour de France this year for the first time since 2008 following his controversial two-year ban for his part in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal.
Whether the “Green Bullet” has regained the same punch that saw him win three stages and take two top-10 overall finishes at the Tour before being banned remains to be seen.
Valverde is optimistic he can be a factor in his Tour comeback and is quietly taking aim at the final podium when the Tour ends July 22 in Paris.
“If you’ve been in the top 10, then the podium is not that much further away. Perhaps it’s within reach for me,” Valverde told VeloNews in an interview earlier this season. “It will not be easy. The Tour is the maximum goal for the season. I have been working hard to be ready.”
The 32-year-old headlines a deep Movistar squad confirmed Monday that also includes Vuelta a España defending champion Juanjo Cobo and Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa.
Valverde, however, will start as the team’s lead GC option.
Despite more than 100km of time trials, he believes he can be in the hunt for a strong GC showing in what will be his first Tour in four seasons.
“I worked a lot on the time trial. I will never be a specialist, but I can defend my position well. Of course, that means I need to take time in other opportunities,” he said. “The course lends itself to attacking, not only in the big mountains but in the shorter climbs as well.”
Valverde has had a hot and cold campaign so far through 2012, his first full season since 2009.
He started hot out of the gates, winning a stage in the Tour Down Under in his first race back with Movistar in January. He won a stage and the overall at the Ruta del Sol in February and then won a stage and finished third overall in a tightly contested Paris-Nice in March.
Since then, things went sideways, first with a crash at the Volta a Calalunya in March and then a sub-par ride through the Ardennes classics.
Valverde went limp in the Belgian classics, with cold winds and rain knocking him off his game, and he was never a factor, with 22nd at Amstel Gold Race and 46th at Flèche Wallonne. He was disqualified at Liège-Bastogne-Liège when he accidently followed photographer motorcycles on a shortcut after the Redoute climb.
Valverde returned to action at the Tour de Suisse in his final warm-up for the Tour. With Movistar teammate Rui Costa riding for overall victory, Valverde rode in a support role to finish a solid ninth overall without giving too much away.
Valverde says he’s just as strong as he was before his ban, which came after Italian authorities matched blood samples taken during the 2008 Tour to blood bags found in police raids of apartments used by notorious Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
Valverde has remained mute on the Puerto scandal, saying he served his time without openly admitting participating in the widespread blood doping ring.
“I do not want to say anything more about what’s happened,” Valverde said earlier this season. “I served the ban and now it’s time to look forward.”
Valverde could find himself facing uncomfortable questions about his past, however, if he scores a stage victory or is challenging for the Tour podium going into the third week. With an opening week packed full of the punchy climbs on which Valverde excels, he could very well find the podium before the race hits the Alps.
But it’s hard to predict just how well Valverde will be able to hold up over three weeks.
The last time he completed a three-week tour was the 2009 Vuelta a España, which he won by 55 seconds over Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and 1:32 over defending Tour champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing).
So far this season, Valverde has been unsteady at longer, Tour-like distances. He couldn’t match Bradley Wiggins (Sky) during Paris-Nice, but no one has been able to do that so far in the Brit’s impressive first half of the 2012 season.
Valverde clearly struggled in the Ardennes, but he blamed biting cold and rain for knocking him off his game in the one-day classics.
A strong Movistar team will be at his disposal. Cobo and Costa are both Tour stage winners who will be able to help Valverde in the high peaks and give the team a second option for stage victories.
Ruben Plaza, Vladimir Karpets, Ivan Gutierrez, Imanol Erviti and Vasil Kiryienka are all Tour-caliber riders who can pace Valverde through the rigors of three weeks. A year after challenging for the green jersey, J.J. Rojas will try his luck in the bunch sprints.
Missing are David Arroyo, second to Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) in the 2010 Giro d’Italia, and newly crowned Spanish champion Fran Ventoso.
Valverde will also be missing the help of now-retired road captain Chente Garcia, who is now one of Movistar’s sport directors. García always made sure that Valverde was well positioned, something that handicapped Valverde in early attempts to win the Vuelta.
Team boss Eusebio Unzue says Valverde gives the team its first legitimate GC option in the Tour in years.
“With Alejandro, we can aspire for bigger things in the overall classification,” he said. “The past few years we had to settle for stage wins and breakaways. Now we have a valid candidate for the final podium. I believe Alejandro will be up to the level he needs to be.”
Valverde is certainly optimistic about his chances. Always aggressive, he promises to attack every chance he gets.
With a string of uneven stages in the opening week, the Tour could see the Spaniard challenging for a stage victory or even the yellow jersey right out of the gun.
Whether Valverde remains stuck in the role of opportunist or can truly contest for the Tour over the entire three weeks will be one of the most interesting story lines of this year’s race.
If Valverde can be a legitimate contender, he could add a huge element of unpredictability into the race.
He might also raise some questions about the past that neither he nor anyone else seems too ready to answer.
Movistar for the 2012 Tour de France