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The Green Bullet, by Matt Rendell

Alejandro Valverde
A study in light and shadow?
Bas Czerwinski / Getty

Title: The Green Bullet – The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Alejandro Valverde and Spanish Cycling’s Corruption
Author: Matt Rendell
Publisher: Seven Dials
Year: 2023
Pages: 269
Order: Orion
What it is: A biography, of sorts, of Alejandro Valverde
Strengths: Whether you love him or loathe him, Valverde lived in interesting times and Rendell does an entertaining job of reminding us of those times
Weaknesses: It’s a long-read feature stretched thin, to the point that the conclusions Rendell reaches do not feel earned

The Green Bullet – The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Alejandro Valverde and Spanish Cycling’s Corruption, by Matt Rendell
The Green Bullet – The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Alejandro Valverde and Spanish Cycling’s Corruption, by Matt Rendell

The record books tell us that Simon Špilak won the 2010 Tour de Romandie for the Italian Lampre team. That’s not how fans remember it. They remember Alejandro Valverde in a Caisse d’Epargne jersey winning the final stage, a tough day in the mountains, and – powered by that victory – climbing to the top of the general classification.

It was a win that offered some consolation for a barren Classics season, with La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – races Valverde had won in the past and which fell either side of his thirtieth birthday – going to others.

Speaking to the press after his victory in Romandie, Valverde noted that he was perhaps feeling a little tired from a season that had started in January and seen him take his only other victory of the year so far, the overall win at the Tour Méditerranéen, on Valentine’s Day. “Now I’m going to take a short break to rest with my family before returning to training and preparing for the Dauphiné Libéré, which will be my next objective.”

The Dauphiné was a month away. Valverde didn’t get to race again for another 21 months. Operación Puerto, the Spanish investigation into the activities of Eufemiano Fuentes which was then into its fifth year, had claimed another scalp, with Valverde spending a two-year time-out on the naughty step.

Alejandro Valverde Belmonte, known as Bala Verde – the Green Bullet – or Bala for short, was born on April 25, 1980. Friday’s child, loving and giving. A Taurus, stubborn but hard-working. Blondie was topping the pop charts, Johnny Logan had just won Eurovision and Hamburg had knocked Real Madrid out of the European Cup. Franco was five years dead, democracy had only returned two years earlier and Spain had not yet been admitted to NATO or the EU. Different times.

Of Valverde’s youth, The Green Bullet has little to tell the reader. Valverde’s father, Juan Valverde, was a truck driver and an amateur cyclist. Valverde was the third born and had at least two siblings, one a brother, Juan Francisco Valverde, who was older than him. His mother, María Belmonte, is barely spoken of. How and when Valverde came to take up cycling is a mess of alternate versions, in some of which he’s just a natural, in others he’s inspired by Pedro Delgado or Miguel Indurain. But take it up he did. And he was quite good at it too.

Mallorca Challenge, 2015: Valverde is congratulated by his father, Juan Valverde, who he credits as being instrumental in his cycling career.
Mallorca Challenge, 2015: Valverde is congratulated by his father, Juan Valverde, who he credits as being instrumental in his cycling career.
Jaime Reina / AFP / Getty

In 1998, as the flames of the Festina affaire engulfed cycling, Valverde was in Cuba for the junior track World Championships, where Bradley Wiggins won the individual pursuit for Team GB and Filippo Pozzato was part of Italy’s silver-medal winning team pursuit squad. Valverde rode the kilometre, team pursuit and team sprint but returned home with little to show for his efforts.

The conflagration that erupted in 1998 had been smouldering for several years beforehand. It continued to burn for several years after. A back-dated TUE saved Lance Armstrong from popping a positive at the 1999 Tour. The month before that, Marco Pantani had been told to leave the Giro d’Italia and rest, his haematocrit levels were unhealthily high. He was wearing the maglia rosa at the time and was just two stages away from winning the race. A test for EPO was introduced and riders quickly fell foul of it. Italian police raided the Giro. Frank Vandenbroucke fell from grace when his name was liked to Bernard Sainz. Growing suspicions about Armstrong, and in particular his links to Michelle Ferrari, kept him in the headlines.

Little fires, everywhere. Enough to raise the sport’s insurance premium but not enough to burn down the house. Until they started coming so fast and so thick that there seemed little hope of anything surviving, their flames torching everything and trailing in their wake a suffocating cloud of toxic smoke.

Between 2004 and 2008 cycling stumbled through the Cofidis affaire; the death of Marco Pantani; the arrest of David Millar in Biarritz as he dined with Dave Brailsford; the publication of David Walsh and Pierre Ballester’s LA Confidentiel; Tyler Hamilton getting caught blood doping at the 2004 Olympics and the Vuelta; L’Équipe’s Mensonge Armstrong exposé; Roberto Heras winning the 2005 Vuelta only to lose it with an EPO positive; Puerto exploding and its shrapnel stripping the 2006 Tour of star riders; Floyd Landis winning that Tour only to lose it with a testosterone positive; a group of former Telekom riders, including Bjarne Riis, confessing to having doped; Alexander Vinokourov leaving the 2007 Tour after being caught with someone else’s blood coursing through his veins; Michael Rasmussen leaving the same Tour while wearing the maillot jaune, caught in a scandal concerning his Whereabouts filings; the UCI and ASO’s on-going scuffle leading to the AFLD taking charge of testing at the 2008 Tour and catching riders left, right and centre for using a new variant EPO, CERA. And these were just the headline cases, with many more buried beneath the fold.

Sponsors fled the sport and TV companies blacked it out. But one man stood firm, even as the flames lapped at his feet: Alejandro Valverde Belmonte, also known as El Imbatido, the undefeated.

Tour de France, 2019: The boy stood on the burning deck...
Tour de France, 2019: The boy stood on the burning deck...
Justin Setterfield / Getty

Valverde had joined the Banesto feeder team in 1998. Formed in 1980 José Miguel Echavarri and Eusebio Unzué’s pro team had been the home of Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain who, between them, had won the Vuelta once, the Giro twice, and the Tour six times (Ángel Arroyo had also won the Vuelta for Echavarri and Unzué, only to lose it when he popped a positive). Of the three Spanish teams in the sport’s first division, Banesto were the top dogs. But it was to the feeder squad of one of those other teams, Kelme, that Valverde chose to switch to the following year. And it was with Kelme that he turned pro in 2002.

Valverde’s first win for the team came in February 2003, at the Challenge Mallorca. In April he added a stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Klasika Primavera. In July, as Kelme’s A-Team raced round France in the Tour, Valverde added more wins with a couple of stages in the Troféo Joaquim Agostinho and then won the GP Villafranca de Ordizia. Then came the Vuelta, where he finished third, joining Roberto Heras – taking his second Vuelta victory – and Isidro Nozal on the podium.

Mundo Deportivo celebrated Valverde’s Vuelta performance, declaring he had achieved lift-off. But when the film was wound back it was already clear that something was going horribly wrong and smoke was emerging from one of his booster rockets.

Valverde’s second Grand Tour and his first Grand Tour podium, alongside Isidro Nozal and Roberto Heras.
Madrid, 2003: His second Grand Tour and his first Grand Tour podium, alongside Isidro Nozal and Roberto Heras. Valverde’s Vuelta performance impressed the writers at Mundo Deportivo: “Closely supervised by Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, his development has been spectacular, and in his second pro season he has achieved lift-off. His current salary is €60,000 but during his brilliant Vuelta a España he signed a much improved contract for four more years.”
Franck Fife / AFP / Getty

Jesús Manzano was the O-ring that failed. While Valverde was enjoying himself at second string races in July, Manzano was entering a nightmare world, leaving the Tour de France in an ambulance with electrodes attached to his chest after having collapsed at the side of the road during the seventh stage. Eight months later he became a whistle-blower, detailing to the Spanish daily As the doping regime in force at Kelme. Nobody in authority wanted to listen to him. Until they had no choice but to listen.

It was a lieutenant with the Guardia Civil who made them listen, Enrique Gomez Bastida. He was looking into a steroid distribution ring and his investigations led him to Fuentes. Starting in March 2006, Bastida began a surveillance operation on Fuentes. Operación Puerto was born. Two months later, on May 23, Fuentes was arrested, as were a number of his associates. Properties were searched and a chest freezer, bought at a department store the previous December, was found to contain bags of blood and plasma. The bags were labelled with numbers and those numbers were linked with the names of their owners, in code. Jan. Birillo. Santi-P. Etc.

A month after Bastida arrested Fuentes, As published a feature on Valverde, Enrique Iglesias joining him for a day and writing about his preparations for the Tour. It was one of those colour pieces, the sort that say much but reveal little. Except for the bit that revealed too much: “Piti, a German shepherd dog, welcomes us, and from the living room window it is Figura, a very friendly parrot, who greets us.”

One of the bags in Fuentes’ freezer was codenamed Valv. (Piti). Through DNA analysis conducted by the Italian authorities that bag was definitively linked to Valverde.

Tour de France, 2005, Courchevel: Valverde took the stage, Armstrong took the yellow jersey.
Tour de France, 2005, Courchevel: Valverde took the stage, Armstrong took the yellow jersey. The Spaniard’s performance received the Armstrong seal of approval: “He’s a difficult rider to classify, very fast and also very strong. A guy like him - and I’m not blowing smoke - could be the future of cycling, because he’s a complete rider and he’s always been good. Valverde was good from the first day he showed up and he’s proven it here.”
Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty

Anybody coming to Matt Rendell’s The Green Bullet and expecting it to be in the same league as The Death of Marco Pantani is likely to be disappointed. Partly because the world has changed, a lot, since the Pantani book was published in 2006 and it takes a lot more to shock us. Partly because The Green Bullet has little new to say. Rendell has not been able to speak to Valverde and nor does he bother speaking much to others, relying instead on the clippings library to piece together his story of the rise, fall and resurrection of Alejandro Valverde. But what makes The Green Bullet an occasionally fascinating and thought-provoking read is the other strand of the story Rendell tells, the story of how cycling has prospered from the corruption that was then endemic in the Spanish business world.

That story starts with the formation of the two teams Valverde rode for throughout his career: Movistar and Kelme. The former has gone though many guises over the last four decades, starting life as Reynolds, becoming famous as Banesto, transitioning through Iles Balears to become Caisse d’Epargne, before emerging as today’s Movistar.

When the Banco Español de Crédito, known as Banesto, took over the sponsorship of the team ahead of the 1989 Tour de France, it was – in Rendell’s words – a case of sport-washing, pure and simple: “Banesto’s upbeat red, yellow and blue logo emblazoned across the jersey of the quixotic Delgado or the prodigious Indurain was the perfect cover for a mass of fraudulent transactions that went undetected until December 1993, when the financial authorities discovered an astonishing €3.636 billion black hole in the bank’s accounts.”

Similarly, Kelme can be linked to corruption through its sponsorship deal with the government of the Valencia region, the Generalitat Valenciana, which saw it become Kelme-Costa Blanca, promoting tourism to the region.

Valencia had been in the running to become the home of Disneyland’s European theme park, only to lose out to Marne-le-Vallée in France. The Generalitat Valenciana decided to make their own theme park instead, on land near Benidorm: “Exactly where was undecided until 1992, when convenient forest fires cleared a strategic area of protected pine forest.”

Tera Mítica was meant to cost €270 million to build and would require three million visitors a year in order to break even. Things didn’t quite go to plan and the visitors didn’t come in the numbers needed: “From the initial clearance of protected woodland by fire to the construction costs that eventually ballooned to €425 million, €155 million over budget, Terra Mítica provided the national press with corruption stories for years to come.”

More corruption can be linked to the Iles Balears and Caisse d’Epargne sponsorship deals, and even Telefónica – the telecoms giant that operates as Movistar in Spain and Latin America and as O2 in the UK – can’t escape the stain of corporate corruption.

None of this is unique to Spain. Pay enough attention to the financial pages and you’ll find many companies that engage in cycling sponsorship caught in an unfavourable light. But the financial pages rarely, if ever, get noticed by the cycling media, which operates in ignorant bliss where these stories are concerned. As the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank has demonstrated, major cycling outlets ignoring the story until the team told them the SVB sponsorship was ending.

But what do these stories tell us about Alejandro Valverde, what do they tell us about the world he inhabits? To understand that Rendell turns to neuroscience to explain how the world we live in has modified the way we think, allowing left-hemisphere thinking to prosper at the cost of right, meaning we see the world not as it is but as it is useful for us to see it. He brings in Franz Kafka and Dante Alighieri. Opus Dei and the deep state. Climate change.

If that sounds like the stuff of a conspiracy theory it’s because, at its heart, The Green Bullet is about a conspiracy theory: “it has been the chronicle of a Kafkaesque plot in which, working to block the prosecution of Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spanish justice system reached a pragmatic solution, limited the charges to public health offences that were unlikely to prosper, and arranging a trial [...] that made it impossible for the accused to be sentenced for an offence other than the one identified at the origin of the case.”

One of the problems with this, though, is that throughout it all Alejandro Valverde remains unknown, gliding though his own story in a series of soulless reports recounting races won and lost. The “warm, helpful, polite, empathic and uncomplicated” hero we meet in the book’s introduction is invisible throughout the rest of the book. He is a man who exists only on a bicycle – as is the case in many cycling biographies – to the extent that when you learn halfway through the book that he’s married and has become the father of twins, it’s a bit of a shock to realise Valverde has a life off the bike at all. Twenty-odd pages later you learn in passing he’s getting divorced. Less than ten pages later he’s married again and a father again. Why didn’t we get to meet that man? Why instead did we get to meet a man Rendell ultimately wants us to believe was a victim, “the only Spaniard with a guilty verdict against his name in the entire Operación Puerto saga.”

November 2022: Valverde engages in a bit of cosplay ahead of the Saitama Criterium
November 2022: An uncomplicated hero? Valverde engages in a bit of cosplay ahead of the Saitama Criterium
Kenta Harada / Getty

According to Rendell, “the older, wiser man was punished for the sins of his younger, more foolish self.” There is no denying by Rendell that Valverde doped. But Rendell challenges us to ask what if “Fuentes’ treatments had no effect, and Alejandro Valverde’s body responded barely or not at all to the doping at Kelme?” The thin strut supporting this piece of what iffery is that Valverde before his ban and Valverde after achieved roughly the same level of success: “he was essentially the same rider pre- and post-ban.”

But what Rendell, in keeping his focus on the Fuentes story, misses is the larger picture of what was happening in cycling in those years, reducing most of the other scandals to background noise. And that is unfortunate, because something clearly did change. The fires that burned through cycling between 2004 and 2008 went out in the years after. Asking why would be a worthwhile question, more profitable than asking what if the drugs don’t work.

In a level playing field pre-Puerto, Valverde could hold his own against others playing by the same rules as he did. What if that continued post-Puerto, that on a level-playing field, where others were again playing by the same rules as he did, Valverde could still hold his own against them? Quite what the new rules of the game were post-Puerto, that’s another question. But we’ve seen enough evidence to know that they didn’t involve drug-free sport.

Were you to boil The Green Bullet down to a long read feature, 15-20,000 words, its deficiencies would disappear, you’d have an engrossing story about various forms of corruption and how cycling prospers from them. Stretched to book length its an engaging but ultimately unsatisfying read about a rider who doped and chose to stay silent about his doping. Just like his predecessors at Banesto, Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain, have done.

At the end of the day, there’s a lot less special about Alejandro Valverde than Rendell wants us to believe there is.

The Green Bullet – The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Alejandro Valverde and Spanish Cycling’s Corruption, by Matt Rendell, is published by Seven Dials
The Green Bullet – The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Alejandro Valverde and Spanish Cycling’s Corruption, by Matt Rendell, is published by Seven Dials