Valverde wins first Grand Tour amidst controversy
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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Valverde wins first Grand Tour amidst controversy

by Agence France-Presse at 9:13 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Vuelta a España, World Championships

Two months after Alberto Contador left Lance Armstrong trailing in the Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde has joined his Spanish compatriot in stepping on to the top step of the podium at the Tour of Spain.

But far from being a climber of Contador's ilk, Valverde is known primarily as a winner of smaller stage races who can also excel in the tough, preferably hilly, one-day classics.

While more than one critic will point to the fact Valverde, who led the race from stage nine to the finish on Sunday, did not have to compete with Armstrong or Contador this year, for the Spaniard that will prove just another formality.

In recent years Valverde has become a master of getting the job done and keeping at arms length nosy journalists enquiring about his involvement in doping affairs.

He was one of several riders implicated in the Operation Puerto which shook up the sport four years ago and, despite never testing positive, he is still suffering the fallout from those allegations.

Since the affair erupted in Madrid in 2005, leading ultimately to a two-year ban for Italian star Ivan Basso, and prompting the early retirement of German star Jan Ullrich, Valverde has ignored the weight of suspicion to go about his business with subdued confidence.

Trumpeted as a future winner of the Tour de France even before he made his debut in 2005, Valverde quickly proved that he is no Armstrong.

Nevertheless, like Contador, he is one of the most consistent champions in the sport.

As well as winning stages on the Tour de France and Tour of Spain, he has won several one-day classics, including the tough Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice, and a number of one-week stage races in Spain.

"I need to win, for myself, my team and my fans," said Valverde.

Valverde finished a remarkable third place overall, winning two stages, on his second Tour of Spain participation in 2003, and then came fourth in 2004 when he won one stage.

Turning his attentions to the much tougher Tour de France for the first time in 2005, there were big expectations on Valverde but he showed his limits by crashing out of the race in both 2005, when he won stage 10, and 2006, when he exited during a crash on stage three.

By early 2005, however, Valverde had underlined his prowess in shorter stage races by finishing second overall in Paris-Nice. Later that year he claimed his second runner-up place in the worlds' road race, finishing behind Belgian Tom Boonen.

Valverde's appetite for success then moved up a level, and in April 2006 he followed success in the hilly semi-classic of Fleche Wallonne with the first of his two wins in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest one-day classic still in existence.

He also finished runner-up to Alexandre Vinokourov in the 2006 Tour of Spain.

Small, though not diminutive, Valverde's combination of climbing talents and his ability to sprint make him a perfect candidate for the world champion's rainbow jersey at the world road race championships next Sunday.

"He's a circuit rider and has always managed to sacrifice himself for his teammates in the national team over the years. Maybe this year it's his turn to benefit," said Spain team coach Jose Luis De Ramos.

In the event of success, however, Valverde could give the sport's ruling body the UCI yet another headache.

He is currently under a ban in Italy after their sporting authorities said a blood sample, taken from last year's Tour de France while in Italy, matched a blood bag taken from the Operation Puerto scandal.

The UCI are awaiting a decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), to which Valverde has appealed that ruling, before deciding on extending his ban worldwide.


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