Ha. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. Oh, I have a confession to make — I didn’t see Dwars live today, I had a few engagements, but there is always time to check Twitter. And so, when I tugged the lever on the Internet’s most popular slot machine, up it came: Valverde attacks on the Taaienberg. Five words. Short of “Go home and watch cycling,” I can’t think of five words that would have brightened my day more. Crossover efforts, you see, appeal to me — fair play to Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana for just turning up in Flanders, and more than fair play to the only-improving Wout van Aert for what he’s already achieved this season, but for Alejandro Valverde — Valverde — lighter than Froome, Bardet, Pinot and a good few more than the subgroup we dub “skinny climbers,” to finish within a minute in a treacherous, wet cobbled classic with an extremely strong field, having been tearing it up earlier in the race...I don’t know what there is to say against that. Even Lampaert, the day’s winner, didn’t have a bad word to say about him, saying of the the Murcian “He’s one of the best riders in the last century. I really look up to him.”
And as I was having these thoughts about Valverde, walking through Dublin on a cold March afternoon, a little seed of a thought began to blossom in my head. And the thought said as follows:
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.
He’s my new favourite rider.”
Okay, Dan Martin excluded, but I’ve never really felt the same dislike for Valverde that everybody seems to, which was a start, and one of the reasons why I picked him for my VDS team at a stunningly low 28 points. I also have Benoot. And Lampaert. And Soler. And Laporte. It’s a fairly good start for me, but that’s beside the point. Andbutso, as I was watching Valverde mop up wherever he went, it came to me that I didn’t just tolerate his style of racing. I really liked it. Why? Well, I have the suspicion that were I blessed with some or all of the man’s undeniable and outstanding physical gifts, I would ride in a similar fashion — not always attacking, sometimes waiting in the wings, but doing what is necessary to win. I really do find myself identifying with him, far more than with, say, Peter Sagan, who seems to try his level best to be a fan favourite. With audacious attacks, half the time I find myself just shaking my head instead of being enthused. Which you can call a fault on my part, I’m a fan after all, but at the end of the day, the riders are there to win the race. And there is no better winner than Valverde.
[Trumpeting from the corner]
Okay, fine, elephant in the room, let’s address you. Yes. Alejandro Valverde is one month away from being thirty-eight. To be competing at this level at that age is something that, to put it euphemistically, somewhat exceeds the norm. To be better than ever at that age is certainly something for which precedent does not leap to mind. And yes, Alejandro Valverde is a convicted blood doper. But shall I just point out that if Stage 18 of the 2008 Tour de France had finished twenty kilometres south-west, CONI would never have gotten their hands on his DNA. He’d never have served a ban and he’d have been as above reproach as Alberto Contador, even if Clenbuterol-gate had never happened. Sure, some of you no doubt cannot find it within yourselves to support any rider about in that era. That’s an attitude I can understand. What I don’t understand is this: suspecting any one rider of chemically cheating to any scale more than another. With a decent argument, you could probably convince me that cycling is still a dirty sport. You could probably convince me it is clean. What I won’t accept is that we have a peloton á deux vitesses situation on our hands. I simply do not and cannot believe that Valverde has any chemical advantage over his rivals.
To me, Valverde’s style of racing and past are no less acceptable than any number of riders who have gone before him. Maybe that’s the problem — gone before. Contador, whatever you think of him, has gone. So has Basso. Jorg Jaksche is only three and a half years older than Valverde — he’s been gone for over a decade. Thomas Dekker’s blood bags were seized at the same time as Valverde’s — he’s four years younger, but he hasn’t been employed in the peloton for five. Of all the riders named in Puerto, Valverde is the only one still riding in the World Tour. He’s the last remnant of the bad old days, and takes much of the backlash and the bitterness remaining for it.
I don’t care. It has been said that the sport will be a better place when all of the known past dopers, all the people who can be mentioned in the same paragraph as Doctor Fuentes, have retired. I don’t think that has to be true. Alejandro Valverde is the consummate winner, he is one of the closest thing we have to a complete cyclist, and I enjoy the sport more for his presence. His past need not be forgotten, but it need not dictate how we view him now.
Oh, who am I kidding. It does, it dictates everything. I’m looking past it, whether that puts me in the wrong or in the right. I know, however, that I’m not convincing anyone to view Señor Doping Conviction as anything but that. Fine. He’s the pantomime villain. He’s the guy in the black costume twirling his moustache, but at the minute, he’s got all the best lines. And I’m currently hooked.