Alejandro Valverde did it all in 2015. Movistar’s 35-year-old captain was at the sharp end of the peloton from January to October, winning classics and one-day day races, finishing third in the Tour de France — his first-ever Tour podium — and claiming a stage and the points jersey at the Vuelta a España. With fifth in Richmond, he nearly added another world championship medal to the six he already has.
“By far, 2015 was my best and most consistent season,” Valverde says. “I’ve reached a new maturity, and I simply enjoy racing my bike. It’s not hard to train or sacrifice. In fact, I take joy in it.”
There’s seemingly nothing Valverde can’t do, and his second straight WorldTour individual points title confirmed his standing as cycling’s most consistent performer. “I’ve never been associated with a rider as well-rounded as Alejandro,” says Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “He can climb, he can sprint, and he’s become a good time trialist. But the most impressive thing about Alejandro is his humility. He never lets ego get in the way.”
In a throwback to cycling’s all-rounder tradition, Valverde continues to defy the growing conventional wisdom of targeted peaks throughout the racing season. Simply put, Spain’s “Green Bullet” is a favorite in every race he starts. “Alejandro is a better racer now than he was when he started,” says Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “He was a natural on the bike, but now he doesn’t make the mistakes he used to.”
Hailing from Spain’s Murcia region, where his father and uncle were semi-pros, Valverde seemed destined for greatness. As a junior, he won more than 50 races, earning the nickname of “El Imbatido,” the unbeaten one. After turning pro in 2002 with Kelme, he quickly made his mark as a rider who could win both bunch sprints and uphill finales.
But there’s no way to understand Valverde without digging into the one thing he never talks about: his two-year ban for links to Operación Puerto.
In 2008, Italian officials connected Valverde to a blood bag found in Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’s stash of nearly 200 bags, and he served a full two-year ban. He returned in 2012 and promptly won up Old Willunga Hill at the Santos Tour Down Under, in his first race back.
Valverde has fended off questions ever since and will likely never be a legitimate winner in the eyes of some, especially since he has refused to directly address people’s suspicions. “There’s nothing more to say about the case,” Valverde said upon his return to racing in 2012. “I served my ban.”
That’s not enough contrition for some. Valverde’s refusal to talk is frustrating and sends us searching for answers as to whether or not he can be trusted. Is he racing clean, or is he, near the end of his career, willing to flirt with the eight-year ban that would follow a second offense?
A look at his physique and the way he races would suggest that he is a very different rider than before 2012. Back then, Valverde carried more weight, which was common, since doped riders could handle a few extra kilograms. Today, power-to-weight ratio is vital to victory, and Valverde has slimmed down to 61 kilograms (134 pounds), about three less than he carried pre-Puerto.
His racing style has changed, too. Valverde used to be more aggressive and unpredictable. Today, he is surgical in his efforts, following wheels more than launching attacks, and he’s winning more races for it. Look at this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, when he stayed hidden inside the pack until riding everyone off his wheel with 400 meters to go.
He employed the same tactic to reach the Tour de France podium. He didn’t attack once during the three weeks. Instead, he followed wheels, covered a few moves to set up teammate Nairo Quintana — especially on l’Alpe d’Huez — and hung on to Paris.
“Alejandro sacrificed his chances for me,” says Quintana, who rode to second. “But he also profited from that tactic. Together, we were stronger than if we were racing alone.”
The Valverde quandary is one that fans and media must deal with in today’s peloton. Any winner is the focus of doubt. Without any new, compelling reason to think otherwise, however, fans and media must either take Valverde at face value or doubt the whole peloton.
And consider this: Valverde’s been on top from his junior days, through his first year as a pro, and into the biological passport era. Today he is the most well-rounded racer in the post-Armstrong era. No one else of his generation can make that claim.