Valverde: From the Vuelta to worlds

Alejandro Valverde has had a long, consistently successful season, but can he cap it off with a rainbow jersey in Richmond?

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Cycling’s Mr. October lines up again. OK, better call him Mr. Late September, but it’s time for the world championships, and a chance for Alejandro Valverde to make history yet again.

The 35-year-old is cycling’s nearly man when it comes to worlds, with a record six world championship medals but no rainbow jersey. Next week, Valverde will lead the powerful Spanish squad when he lines up in Richmond as an outside favorite for the UCI World Road Cycling Championships.

“I hope to be ready for the worlds,” Valverde said. “I am tired from a long season, and that’s one reason why I wasn’t up to the top level at the Vuelta. The worlds are important, and with Spain, we always bring a competitive team.”

Spain confirmed its worlds team this week, with Valverde, Joaquim Rodríguez, and Juanjo Lobato to lead the team. The Richmond course could favor riders like Valverde, who have the legs to go the distance, and have the kick to win out of a reduced bunch sprint. Rodríguez, a two-time worlds medalist, will be the team’s wildcard for late-race breakaways, while Lobato will try to stay in contention in case it’s a mass sprint.

“We bring a team for all scenarios,” said national coach Javier Minguez. “The team is unified with the goal of winning. It’s never easy, but Spain will have a strong squad.”

Valverde has an amazing podium run at the worlds, with silver medals in 2003 and 2005, and bronze medals in 2006, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Will Valverde settle for another medal, or risk it all for a shot at the rainbow jersey?

“We’ll see how the race unfolds. The worlds is always a complicated race,” Valverde said. “Six medals, that’s something. Would I change those six medals for one world title? I don’t know. I’ve made history in a certain way by being so consistent, but of course, I would like to win a world title as well.”

It won’t be easy for Spain in Richmond. On paper, the course favors classics-style puncheurs who can go the distance, such as Slovak Peter Sagan, Norwegian Alexander Kristoff, and Germany’s John Degenkolb. It’s hard to say how selective the race will be, but the worlds typically comes down to the final, decisive two or three laps. With a technical route, laced with short climbs, cobblestones, and narrow roads, Richmond will likely see a small bunch entering the final laps.

Spain, with nine starters and a rich history at the worlds, promises to be there.

Minguez downplayed a spat last weekend between Valverde and Rodríguez at the end of the Vuelta. Valverde pipped Rodríguez at the intermediate sprint in the closing-day stage of the Vuelta to snatch away the points jersey, angering Rodríguez.

“It’s the second time this has happened, and it’s not very funny,” Rodríguez said. “For me, the final day of the Vuelta is like a party. Next come the worlds, let’s see what happens there.”

Rodríguez and Valverde have been fierce competitors throughout their careers, and have butted heads more than a few times on the national team.

The most recent flare-up came at the 2013 worlds in Florence, when Rodríguez lost in a heartbreaker to Portugal’s Rui Costa, then Valverde’s Movistar teammate at the time. Rodríguez claimed that had Valverde marked Costa’s late-race counter-attack, Spain would have been all-but-assured of the rainbow jersey. Instead, Valverde said he didn’t have the legs to follow the move from Costa, who later reeled in and beat a desperate Rodríguez.

“It was just a blow up from Rodríguez. Once they put on their national jerseys and hit the circuit, they will only be concentrating on the world championships,” Minguez told the Spanish daily AS. “All this goes a long way back, but they get along well together. The ones who we should be worried about are the Belgians and Australians.”

Joining Rodríguez and Valverde are Lobato, Ion Izaguirre, Imanol Erviti, Dani Moreno, Luis Leon Sanchez, Ruben Plaza, and Lluis Mas. Sanchez and Jonathan Castroviejo have been selected for the individual time trial on September 23.

For Valverde, the worlds will be icing on the cake of what’s been a fruitful season. He rode to the podium at the Tour de France for the first time, and he won Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After winning a Vuelta stage, snatching the points jersey from Rodríguez, and riding to seventh overall, Valverde also locked up his second-consecutive WorldTour title.

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