"THE VALVERDE PROBLEM" - CILLIAN KELLY
Alejandro Valverde has finally won his first race as World Champion. I say ‘finally’, but it wasn’t that long was it? It’s still only February. Most previous wearers of the rainbow jersey haven’t won a race by now. Over the past 10 years only Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish told the curse where to go sooner than Valverde has.
Maybe it just feels a bit longer for Valverde because he’s come so close to winning so often already this season. Before his stage win at the UAE Tour he had managed five podium places. nine top 10 finishes and hasn’t finished below 25th place all year. He is also now the oldest ever rider to win a road race while wearing the Rainbow Jersey.
There is an Infographic in The Road Book 2018 which shows Valverde’s finishing positions in every race he has ridden, and every stage of every race he has ridden, since the beginning of the 2016 Giro d’Italia. Not once has he finished outside of the top 50 in that time. Since the book was published Valverde has continued that streak. He has now finished in the top 50 of a bike race 212 times in a row (ignoring his DNF for crashing out of the 2017 Tour de France opening time trial).
It seems a remarkable statistic itself but as always with this type of thing I find myself asking just how remarkable it is. To put it into context, here are the other WorldTour riders with the current longest streaks of consecutive top 50 finishes:
Diego Ulissi - 50
Ion Izagirre - 38
Greg van Avermaet - 25
Wout Poels - 23
No other rider is on a top 50 streak longer than 20 races. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that most riders in the peloton are not riding for themselves, most of them are currently on a streak of zero or one.
But that still remains a little unsatisfactory. Is it possible that other riders have had similar streaks in their careers but it just so happens that Valverde is the only rider that’s currently on one right now?
The answer to that is an emphatic ‘no’.
Of all the current WorldTour riders on all the current WorldTour teams - that’s 482 riders - not one of them has ever gone an entire year finishing every race in the top 50, apart from Alejandro Valverde. And not only did the Spaniard do it in 2017 and 2018 but he’s book-ended it with almost all of 2016 along with all of his results so far this year.
It gives a clue as to why Valverde is still so successful into his late thirties. He never takes a day off. Even the most successful riders often take a breather during a stage race and roll in at the back of the bunch in 143rd place. But not Valverde. He is on every day. His appetite for racing is insatiable and shows no signs of abating. He clearly can’t get enough of it. The day we start seeing him drift in toward the finish line not bothered about affecting the front of the race is the day we may see him finally consider retirement.
Not everyone will be happy to read about this kind of consistent excellence. He was banned from the sport for two years in 2010 for storing his blood with the intention of transfusing it as part of Operation Puerto. But even dopers take a day off in the safety of the peloton. Lance Armstrong never even made it through a whole Tour de France without finishing outside the top 50 on a couple of stages, never mind making it through an entire year or more. Whether you are a doper or not doesn't shape the mentality required to actually want to be at the front of the race every single day. Valverde may still be doping, I don't know and neither do you. But what he's doing, what he's achieving is something different. It is an addendum to that, it could not be simply because of it.
He’s like looking into a mirror which tells you how you feel about professional cycling. He is a doper who was caught and has never apologised. He’s given us the tired old line that his conscience is clear which us deeply unsatisfactory. Consequently, it’s a perfectly legitimate viewpoint to hope he never wins another race and to feel that the sooner he retires the better.
However it’s also perfectly legitimate for cycling fans to simply want to watch an exciting race regardless of what the protagonists have done in the past. Or to be unaware of what they have done in the past. And Valverde regularly gives us an exciting race to watch.
But there is a third legitimacy to watching Valverde racing his bike, one which falls between the other two stools. It is possible to at once be abhorred by Valverde’s doping and lack of contrition while also fully appreciating his mastery of bike racing. It’s not a satisfactory scenario to be in but it’s one in which a lot of fans find themselves. How to feel about the provider of such qualified joy? Watching him race is like finding 50 quid on the ground when there’s no one around. You have the thrill of feeling a little bit richer, but you also feel a pang of conscience that you probably shouldn’t be enjoying it.
The unique way he races means it could be many years yet before he’s gone and we no longer have the problem of Valverde.