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Valverde enters new territory with Giro, Tour of Flanders

Alejandro Valverde is out to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The world No. 1 reconfirmed his ambitious 2016 calendar that’s replete with unknown territory and new challenges for the 35-year-old Spaniard.

Rather than stick to what he knows best, Valverde is spicing up his season, with first-ever appearances at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and the Giro d’Italia, with the added goal of earning a medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“Special? I don’t know, every season is special, but this year will be different, that’s for sure,” Valverde told journalists at a team presentation in Madrid. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Despite racing in 18 grand tours —a run that includes winning the overall title at the 2008 Vuelta a España and a third-place finish in the 2015 Tour de France — Valverde will make his Giro debut this year. In many ways, the Giro is ideally suited for Valverde’s aggressive style of racing. The Giro’s mix of challenging terrain, with short, explosive hilltop finales blended with longer, Tour-style mountain stages in the north, will make Valverde a five-star favorite for the pink jersey.

“Normally in May, I am resting, but this year, I will be racing in the Giro. Let’s hope the legs respond the way I hope they will,” he said. “The idea is to go for the maximum at the Giro, to aim for the podium, and maybe even more. We know it will be complicated, because the rivals are very strong. Let’s see what happens.”

A pro since 2002, Valverde is a steady grand-tour performer. Of the 15 grand tours he’s finished, he’s only once been out of the top-10 (20th in the 2012 Tour), and has scored seven podiums. Despite finishing third in France last year, Valverde decided the time was right to take on the Giro.

“It wasn’t hard to decide to race the Giro. It was almost now or never, so we decided to take on the Giro, and prepare for it the best way possible,” he said. “Later, I will go to the Tour to support Nairo [Quintana]. He’s going well, and we’ll bring a strong team for him, so why not win it?”

The Giro and the Rio Olympics are Valverde’s central targets of the season, and he will ride the Tour largely in a support role for Quintana. That doesn’t mean he might not try to win a stage, but the idea is to be ready to challenge for the medals in Rio de Janeiro two weeks after the Tour is over.

“The Olympics are a great course for me. It’s a one-day race, with only five riders per team, so to win, you also need a lot of luck as well,” Valverde said. “I am excited, motivated, and hopefully I can stay healthy. If I can be healthy, I can make good results no matter where I line up to race.”

Valverde was consistent across the 2015 season, winning Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (and took second at Amstel Gold Race), before riding onto the Tour podium. He followed that up with third at Clásica San Sebastian, seventh at the Vuelta, fifth at the world championships, and fourth at Giro di Lombardia.

Now in his 12th season with the Movistar franchise, Valverde makes his season debut Mallorca Challenge this weekend in Spain, and will race the Vuelta a Murcia in his hometown region in mid-February before jumping into an aggressive spring classics campaign.

After getting a taste of the cobbles in 2014, when he raced Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, Valverde will make a return to Flanders. First he is scheduled to race Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico (his only stage race before the Giro), and Milano-Sanremo. After that, he will head north, racing Dwars and Harelbeke again before his Tour of Flanders debut, followed by the Ardennes classics, with Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“For the classics, I will arrive a little bit softer than in other years, so we’ll see how we go,” he said. “To win Flanders? That’s going to be very complicated. The race will give me extra motivation, and it would be amazing to climb the podium.”

If that wasn’t enough, Valverde hasn’t discounted possibly racing the Vuelta a España as well.

“It’s going to be a long season, because usually I do Tour-Vuelta, but this year, I will do the Giro-Tour, plus the Olympics,” he said. “After that, we’ll see how I feel, and maybe I’ll even race the Vuelta as well. If I go, I will try to do the best I can.”