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Analysis: The curious case of Alejandro Valverde

While they’re celebrating Alejandro Valverde’s victory south of the Pyrénées — Spain’s MARCA headline read, “Liège-Valverde-Liège” — it seems others in the cycling community are having a hard time warming up to his Ardennes dominance.

A third career Liège crown, by any standard of the sport, should be cheered as a mark of excellence and should represent a confirmation of talent and mastery on the bike. And especially the way the Movistar captain pulled it off: first by controlling a searing late attack by Dani Moreno (Katusha), and then sprinting away from the elite of the peloton, who were all marking his wheel. It was a work of art.

Like many of his generation — Valverde turned 35 on Saturday — the Spaniard has one leg stuck in the past, and one in today’s peloton. And that makes it very difficult to stand up and cheer for victories that are otherwise Merckxian in scale.

Unanswered questions about Puerto

Fairly or unfairly, Valverde continues to be dogged by unanswered questions about his role in the Operación Puerto doping scandal that erupted in Spain nearly a decade ago. In 2006, cycling was brought to its knees after Spain’s Guardia Civil uncovered the international doping ring masterminded by Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. Fuentes was the Spanish counterpart to Italy’s Michele Ferrari, and served as one-stop shopping for riders such as Ivan Basso, Jorg Jaksche, Tyler Hamilton, and Michele Scarponi, all of whom served bans. More than 60 names were linked to Fuentes, but police could only clearly identify a handful, meaning there were dozens of major riders, some who could still be racing today, who got away with it.

Valverde looked to have dodged the bullet, until the 2008 Tour dipped into Italian soil for stage 15, when Italian authorities were eagerly awaiting to draw Valverde’s blood samples. They cleverly matched it to one of the 200 bags of blood and plasma stored in Fuentes’s infamous refrigerators, and Valverde was nailed. After a lengthy legal battle over questions of jurisdiction, Valverde was handed a two-year racing ban, erasing his results midway through the 2010 season to 2011.

He quietly and discreetly served his ban, and when he came back to the peloton in 2012, Movistar welcomed him with open arms. It quickly became obvious that Valverde was not going to become a Spanish version of David Millar, the repentant ex-doper who was determined to help steer the sport in a new direction. Instead, Valverde kept his mouth shut, never provided any telling information about his relationship with Fuentes, and got back to the business of racing his bike.

Return to winning ways

What Valverde was determined to do, however, was to win again. Nicknamed “BalaVerde” by the Spanish media, Spain’s “Green Bullet” was obsessed with winning upon his return from his ban. He did just that, winning the hardest stage at the Santos Tour Down Under — his first race back — at Old Willunga Hill. His comeback 2012 season was solid, with stage wins at Paris-Nice and the Tour de France. He rounded out his season with second overall behind Alberto Contador at the Vuelta a España, and took bronze at the world championships. Since then, Valverde hasn’t missed a beat; 27 of his career 63 wins came after his Puerto comeback.

Valverde’s palmares are impressive by any measure, but is it fair or even correct to assume that because Valverde won two editions of Liège before his two-year Puerto ban that his victory Sunday should somehow include an asterisk? Just as it’s always been, that’s an impossible question to answer.

And just how clean is the peloton right now? There is an uneasy feeling among some observers and insiders that the peloton might be slipping back into some of its bad habits. There is no question that racing today is cleaner and more credible than it’s been since men started racing bikes to earn money. The sport has been rife with cheating and doping since its inception, and everyone admits that now. The combination of the biological passport on top of an endless stream of doping scandals from 1998 through 2007 brought the sport to a tipping point. Cycling would either have to clean up its act, or the sport was in danger of collapsing.

By 2009, there were clear signs that real change was happening. The style of racing evolved. Gone were the big-ring attacks with 50km and two cols to go. In this new-look peloton, attacks were more measured and often came inside the red kite. The overall pace of the peloton increased, and rather than seeing aggression off the front, cycling became a war of attrition. Scared off by the biological passport, and perhaps due to an unwritten gentleman’s agreement among the teams to truly try to change their ways, the years between 2010 to 2013 delivered some of the cleanest, most believable results in the sport’s history.

How clean is the peloton?

Some voices suggest the peloton has gotten its head around the passport, and that the passport can be controlled, managed, and even manipulated. The situation today is certainly a far cry from the go-go days of 1990s, when there wasn’t even an EPO test and riders were pushing their hematocrits above 60 percent, but there are rumors that riders are micro-dosing, even transfusing, as well as abusing TUEs and doing anything that is not banned, pushing things to the absolute legal limit.

On the other side of the coin, there is a never-seen-before parity within the peloton right now. The winning differences are fractions of percentage point, often made in one, well-timed, all-or-nothing surge. The notion of marginal gains has taken over the peloton. What teams like Garmin and High Road started around 2008-09 was perfected by the big-budgeted Sky outfit, which, after a rough birthing year in 2010, dominated the 2011-2013 seasons. Since then, nearly every major team has started to catch up, and things like gluten-free diets, skin suits in long road races, altitude camps, and the idea of “train hard, race easy” have been adopted by much of the peloton.

The way this year’s classics season manifested itself confirmed this new equality. All the moves came late, and despite the rigors of the cobbles, which provoke a natural selection via crashes, punctures and bad luck, there were no major, eyebrow-raising attacks. And the Ardennes, which used to see long-distance bombs from peloton, saw nearly bunch sprints. Coupled with largely mild weather across the spring classics, the racing was tense, equal, and, as some even suggested, boring.

So in that context, where does Valverde fit in? Like many top pros, he’s been good on the bike since he was a teenager. He earned the nickname “El Imbatido,” which loosely translates to “the unbeaten one,” after ripping through Spain’s amateur ranks. His first pro season in 2002 didn’t deliver any wins, but he quickly became a force to reckon with in reduced bunch sprints as well as punchy, uphill finales. In 2003, he won the first of his record six world championship medals. By 2009, Valverde won the Vuelta a España and was a complete rider.

Since his 2012 comeback, he’s been just as good, and perhaps even better than when he was before. He’s racing smarter, avoiding some of the tactical blunders that used to drive the Movistar brass crazy, and has scored quality wins. His performance Sunday to win Liège confirmed his growing acumen.

Strongest in the Ardennes

That brings us back to Valverde’s tremendous run across the Ardennes. He was second at Amstel Gold, a race he’s never won, and then defended his title at Flèche Wallonne, when he dominated the Mur de Huy, before winning his third Liège by marking the late moves and saving a final shot for his sprint to the victory. Without question, he was the strongest of the field.

Would Valverde risk doping again? Logic would say no. Not only would he face a lifetime ban and public humiliation, he recently signed a three-year contract to keep him in a Movistar jersey through 2017. Yet others grumble that old habits die hard.

Maybe Valverde is simply very good at racing his bike. He won in the 2000s, and he’s winning now. There’s no doubting his class, but what people doubt is if he’s pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes one more time.

Despite the huge advances cycling has made, it seems almost any big win immediately comes under suspicion, especially when it comes from cycling’s old guard. That much, it seems, will never change.