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Nineteen years later, the 42-year-old closed out his career by beating back a bunch of riders more than a decade his junior to win the sprint for sixth at “the race of the falling leaves.”
Valverde closed a two-decade chapter when he rolled to the finish with a wave Saturday.
Like the retirement of Vincenzo Nibali, Valverde’s departure will leave a chasm in the cycling hopes of his nation. However, perhaps unlike Nibali, Valverde seems to have finished just as strong as he started.
“I feel excited about the future, but sadness for leaving with this great level. Also happiness, for the enormous work that the team has done today all day and to be able to fight,” Valverde said at the Lombardia finishline.
Valverde started his 11th monument as outside contender for victory Saturday.
Movistar’s “Green Bullet” was gapped along with around a dozen more when Tadej Pogačar, Enric Mas and Mikel Landa surged clear to battle for the podium spots, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave pro cycling quietly.
Valverde sprinted from the back of the chase group and accelerated away from five rivals in a surge so strong he even had time to salute the spectators.
Sixth place leaves Valverde with seven top-6s in the Italian monument in what was “the race that got away” from one of the modern kings of the hilly classics. His packed palmarès from an illustrious – if doping ban-blighted – career includes multiple victories in similar races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Clasica San Sebastian.
Valverde is set to stay within the Movistar bubble now he’s hung up his racing wheels.
The Murcian’s future role at his long-time squad is still uncertain, but he’s likely to keep close tabs on his successor Mas, who scored second behind Pogačar as he reaps a late-season surge of form.
“Enric Mas and I, until the end,” Valverde said. “Twenty-one years as a professional, great moments … and now, to enjoy.”