MADRID (VN) — It must not be easy being Alejandro Valverde these days.
An entire nation is piling blame on the 33-year-old Spanish star for the nation’s near miss in Sunday’s elite men’s road race in Florence, Italy.
Everyone, from journalists and teammate Joaquim Rodríguez to national team coach Javier Minguez and even Spanish cycling legend Miguel Indurain, is pointing the finger of blame at Valverde for letting the rainbow jersey slip away.
Spain had the numbers in the race-winning group of four, with Rodríguez attacking and Valverde marking the moves. Yet, when eventual winner Rui Costa (Portugal) bolted away from Vincenzo Nibali in the final curve of the 272-kilometer course, Valverde stayed put.
Just about every pundit seems to agree that if Valverde had followed Costa, Spain likely would have come up golden.
“Alejandro made a mistake when he didn’t follow Costa,” said Minguez, who came out of retirement to lead the Spanish team at the worlds without a salary. “Had Alejandro gone with Costa, we would have won the gold.”
Despite putting two riders on the podium in Rodríguez (silver) and Valverde (bronze), there was no celebrating in the Spanish camp. There was a quiet toast at the Spanish team hotel on Sunday night, but no wild party.
“It hurts even more when it seemed pretty obvious what we had to do. I believe I did everything perfectly,” Rodríguez said. “Why didn’t we win? You have to ask somebody else that.”
Paolo Bettini, Italy’s national coach who was under massive huge pressure to deliver the win, said he preferred Nibali’s fourth to Spain’s two podiums.
“I have no regrets about how we raced. It’s better to lose like Vincenzo did, fighting until the end and racing with extreme intelligence, than lose like the Spanish did,” Bettini said. “It’s better to race like we did, than to take consolation with two medals. Rodríguez was crying in front of all of us, and Valverde was on the podium for the fifth time without winning. That hurts more.”
Valverde insists he simply didn’t have the legs to follow Costa’s powerful surge, but there are plenty of conspiracy theorists out there who think there are other reasons why Valverde didn’t follow Costa.
Costa is Valverde’s teammate
Costa and Valverde are professional teammates at Movistar, where they have a cordial, friendly relationship. The world championship is always a race full of dynamics of pro teammates helping each other out despite not wearing the same national jersey during the race.
Guess who the rider was who helped tow Nibali back to the front group when he crashed on the penultimate lap? It wasn’t an Italian teammate, but rather Andriy Grivko, his Astana teammate.
Costa is leaving Movistar at the end of this season to join Lampre-Merida, where he will have the opportunity to lead in grand tours, something he knew he wouldn’t do at Movistar, where Valverde and rising star Nairo Quintana receive full team backing.
Would Valverde somehow want to throw a shot at the world title to help a lieutenant who is going to a rival squad next season? No.
Some have pointed out a long-running rivalry between Rodríguez and Valverde that dates back to early in their careers.
The riders are nearly the same age; their respective careers have overlapped since they were juniors, and their characteristics as riders are almost identical. Valverde was the more prolific winner early on, taking trophies in the under-23 ranks and his early pro years, earning him the nickname “El Imbatido,” or “The Unbeaten One.” Rodríguez is a late-bloomer, who has come of age over the past half-decade once he had the chance to ride for his own results.
Rodríguez left Caisse d’Epargne so he could no longer ride in the shadow of Valverde. While they are certainly on-road rivals, there is little to suggest that Valverde would throw the worlds simply because he didn’t like Rodríguez. In fact, had Valverde, a strong sprinter, followed Costa, he would have the best chance to win the world title in the sprint, not Rodríguez. And there was no guarantee that Costa would have caught Rodríguez.
So did Valverde sit up and let Costa ride away because he didn’t want Rodríguez to win the rainbow jersey? No.
Valverde is ‘tonto’
Valverde has never been accused of being the most tactically savvy of riders in the Spanish peloton. He won early and often in the first years of his pro career simply because he was fast and strong — not due to his cunning.
But those wins came in smaller Spanish races against thin fields. Once Valverde started racing grand tours and one-day monuments, he struggled with tactics and positioning, which are so important at the elite level of the sport. He soon discovered that he would lose chances to win because he he was often poorly positioned at the back of the bunch and miss moves or get caught in echelons.
He also has a penchant for bad luck, with the most recent example in this year’s Tour, when his back wheel was damaged in a pile-up just as the peloton was breaking up into pieces in the crosswinds. He went from second overall to more than 10 minutes back in just 50km of racing. The same thing happened in last year’s Vuelta a España, when he crashed while in the leader’s jersey as Sky charged to the front in crosswinds in the first week.
“They raced well, but the mistake was the mistake of Valverde,” said four-time world champion Oscar Freire. “You have to watch only one rider, because Nibali was pulling. It was also bad luck that Nibali was pulling. Normally he would pull for one kilometer, and if he doesn’t catch [Rodríguez], he would stop, or he would ask for help from Costa. I don’t know why it happened like this.”
There’s another wrinkle. The worlds road race is run without race radio, but it doesn’t take a director screaming in the earpiece to know that if you have the numbers, you follow the moves.
So did Valverde not cover Costa’s move because he was confused in the moment? Perhaps, but probably not.
That brings us back to Valverde’s claim that he was simply too cooked to follow.
Riders are not robots, and with extreme rain piled on top of a climb-heavy course, it’s not such a stretch to take him on his word. On Sunday, Valverde simply stated that when Costa attacked, he was behind Nibali, missed the gap, and didn’t have the legs to counter after sweeping out of the turn.
Valverde had already told Rodríguez during the race that his legs were “justitos,” which roughly translates to barely there. In fact, he gave Rodríguez the green light to attack on the final lap. And when Rodríguez attacked over the final hump late in the race, it was Valverde who struggled over the top behind Nibali and Costa.
Valverde is defensive against the barrage. On Monday, he responded via Twitter, congratulating Costa, and adding he would aim for gold next year in Spain, writing, “Satisfaction is something personal in doing things in the way one believes they should be done, not by seeing your name on a palmares.”
Valverde made history by becoming the first elite men’s rider to win five world championship medals — three bronze, two silver — but unfortunately for him, that’s not going to be good enough to quiet the rabble.
Why the ‘polemica’ doesn’t matter
The Belgians have an expression for Monday morning quarterbacks that goes something like this: “If my uncle had tits, he’d be my aunt.” That’s a more colorful way of saying that all the could-haves and should-haves cannot change the cold, hard facts of what actually did happen.
There are other scenarios to consider. There is no guarantee that Valverde or Rodríguez would have won if all three were there. And then there is Nibali, who was looking to Valverde to lead the chase to Costa. Had Nibali been there in the end, with the rainbow jersey in play, you can bet he would have sprinted better and harder than his tepid kick for bronze. Run the same finale over 10 different times, and you might get 10 different outcomes.
What happened was Costa won, end of story. And that’s proving hard to swallow for pre-race favorites Spain and Italy.
Costa’s win being undervalued
What’s getting lost in this post-race polemic is the sublime performance by Costa.
The 26-year-old read the race perfectly. His out-gunned Portuguese team left him isolated on the final lap, yet he had the nose and legs to follow the chasing Valverde after Rodríguez’s attack drew out Nibali.
Once he and Valverde pulled up to Nibali, who was afraid of crashing again and lost Rodríguez’s wheel, Costa forced the Italian to lead the chase. All the pressure was on Nibali to win on home roads, and after crashing on the penultimate lap and then losing Rodríguez in the decisive moment, Costa astutely realized that it was Nibali who had to chase. Nibali later bitterly recounted that Costa only pulled through once. So Costa was wisely saving his matches for a daring, risk-all final attack.
Next, Costa chose the perfect moment to attack. With Nibali on the front, and Valverde floating on the Italian’s wheel, Costa shot through like a bolt out of the final corner. There was a decisive moment of hesitation. Nibali was looking for Valverde to react, but the Spaniard said his tank was empty. Costa was gone. Had Costa jumped earlier, Valverde and Nibali both would have chased. And had he left it too late, Rodríguez would be celebrating his world title.
And once he reached Rodríguez, the momentum was on his side. He ignored the exasperated taunts from Rodríguez, and finished off the sprint with sangfroid to cap a tremendous performance worthy of the rainbow jersey.
At the end of the day, Costa single-handedly out-foxed and out-rode two of the strongest and deepest teams in the most important one-day race of the year.
Isn’t that how a world champion is supposed to ride? Yes.