It's time to start saying it: Alejandro Valverde is getting old.
No, at 27 years, he's not done on the bike, not by a long shot. And by any reasonable measure, he's accomplished a great deal in a short time. Two Vuelta podiums, wins at Liege and Fleche Wallonne last year which gave him the Pro Tour jersey for keeps, third in the world championships, and top finishes in almost any race he enters. He's continued to rack up wins this year, even with a pared-down calendar, by taking the overall titles at the Vuelta de al Comunidad Valenciana and Vuelta a Murcia. El Imbatible, indeed.
But by Tour de France standards, he's getting long in the tooth, considering: he's only started twice; he's never finished; he's never been around long enough to contest a time trial greater than the 17km pseudo-prologue in 2005. In short, given that the Vuelta doesn't compare to the Tour, you could say he has no meaningful experience coming into this race. And the Tour is not kind to the inexperienced.
Everyone knows Valverde, when he isn't being whispered about for darker reasons, is spoken of as the next great thing, from one-day races to the Tour. He has enough power to hang pretty close to the leaders on the time trials, and a climbing prowess that would make even other Spaniards blush. Sure, others have those skills, even more refined versions. But what makes Valverde different, perhaps special, is the blazing speed with which he is able to finish off these races, regardless of what's come before. Like Damiano Cunego only more so, Valverde can win a sprint, even against sprinters. This makes him El Imbatible any time he can hang around for the closing of a hilly race, be it a Classic or mountain stage of a Grand Tour. Ask Lance Armstrong.
But if this is his superpower, well, so freaking what? Sprinting at the end of mountain stages of the Tour will gain you some small time bonuses, but you can't win the maillot jaune unless you finish off all of your climbs, and put up some pretty impressive time trial results to boot. Valverde has shown himself at the Tour by winning the Courchevel stage in 2005, before knee trouble scrapped his appearance in the Pyrenees or time trial. Last year was even worse: a lapse of concentration on stage 3 sent him down on his collarbone, scuttling his plans before he even broke a sweat.
None of this is evidence that he can't race for three weeks across France with the best of them. For that, you have to examine last year's Vuelta, a considerably easier race but one in which he faltered down the stretch and lost his golden fleece to Alexandre Vinokourov. Again, in his defense, Valverde only appeared at the Vuelta after his Tour plans got scrapped, and it's not easy to change your program for the year on the fly. Ultimately, Valverde can and should only be judged on the basis of results in grand tours where he competed in his peak form, and that sheet of data is blank right now (unless you want to dial back to the 2005 Vuelta, pretty stale info).
Absent enough data, we can guess that the biggest challenge for him will be the flat time trials. Valverde won a 23km uphill time trial at Murcia this year, but if Jose Rujano can take 6th, it's probably not a barometer for the flat, 54km Albi time trial. Facing his main rivals, Valverde finished second only to Thomas Lovkvist in the Criterium International time trial this spring... but that was all of 8.3km. He finished top five in both Vuelta time trials last fall, but those were shorter than what he'll see this month. Still, there's evidence there if you want to see it that Valverde may not get killed against the watch.
By all accounts, Valverde is primed and ready (stomach bug in the Dauphine notwithstanding) this year. He has possibly the strongest team, surrounded by Oscar Pereiro, Vlad Karpets, Luis Leon Sanchez and others. He knows his main rivals at Astana well enough. Finally, we should see what he's got. If he fades after two weeks, he should seriously consider spending the next few years cleaning up at the Classics and Vuelta, where he could pile up some huge palmares. Maybe the Tour just isn't for him.
Or he might win. Time to raise the curtain and find out.