'Bala' to race Sunday's Spanish National RR Champs in Soria before his tenth appearance in the Tour de France; ready to support Nairo Quintana all the way to Paris
The Spanish National Road Race Championships in Soria on Sunday – a race he already won in 2008 (Talavera) and 2015 (Cáceres) – will be Alejandro Valverde's final stop before taking on the 2017 Tour de France. The Movistar Team rider will be lining up in the 'Grande Boucle' for the tenth time, twelve years after his maiden appearance in 2005, completely free of any pressure after his 2015 podium finish – one he had sought for his entire career.
Valverde has four Tour stages to his account –Peyragudes ('12), Plumelec, Super-Besse ('08) and Courchevel ('05)–, with two days in yellow and four consecutive top-8 GC finishes since 2013 – despite being mainly focused on supporting Nairo Quintana. The marvel from Murcia, still the rider with most UCI wins in 2017 (11), reflects on his condition and approach to the Tour exactly one week before the start of the race.
The road from the Ardennes
"After the classics I spent a week out of the bike, enjoyed some holiday for my family and then went on altitude training in Sierra Nevada. I stayed there for 23 days before heading to the Dauphiné. I felt good in France – obviously, not in a condition to target the GC specifically, but I was close to the top guys. Afterwards, I went to Andorra to refresh my mind on some of the Pyrenees climbs and, above all, stay away from the heat we were suffering in southern Spain."
"I'm going to Soria with an aim of riding strong and help the team retain the championship. Of course I'd love to win, but it's not an obsession for me. More than anything, it should be good training for me before the Tour. I've been checking the route and the final circuit doesn't feel like flat, but it's not really hard either. In the end, it will be the distance rather than the hills which will make it hard. We're obviously the top favourites as fourteen of us will be racing there, but you can't get any confident about that because our rivals will still be strong and skilled."
"I feel like I'm tackling it in great form, hopefully strong enough to be by Nairo's side and help my team-mates as much as possible. My goal is clear and certain, and I've stated it many times: supporting him, and nothing else. We'll be backing Nairo 100%. Anything that happens after that on the road is something we can't really plan on. Obviously, I can't lose much time on the GC because it serves our team's strategical interest. If things go right and we both remain up there in the overall standings, our rivals will have to take precautions against both of us – which might turn out to be good for the team.
"I really respect the Tour, but I don't have any fear to it anymore. I've really got hold of how it works during the last few years. I'm not only excited about riding it, but also certain about what I can do for the team – just as much as my team-mates are.
"I see Nairo very focused on the task. He's training well, he's keeping his mind fresh, and even though it's true he's tackling the Giro-Tour double for the first time, he's always done better at the second Grand Tour in the past when he took on the Tour-Vuelta one. I don't feel like it should be a problem for him."
"I see all main rivals doing really well – I don't feel like there's one quite stronger to the others, either. At this very moment, it seems like Richie Porte is a bit stronger than the rest, but in a 21-day event, everything can change a thousand times. Froome has shown his quality during the past few years, and with his previous wins in the race we must consider him the strongest favourite, even if it's true that he hasn't shown to be as superior to the rest as he did in the past. Also Alberto, who knows how to approach the race in full condition; Bardet, who finished 2nd last season – I think all favourites are pretty much close, and that should make for an open race, exciting for the fans."
"The first week will be pretty nervous, as it always happens in the Tour. However, I like that there's a mountain-top finish already on day five, so we don't get too much into a sprinters' course-dynamic and start seeing things calm down in the bunch. It will be a demanding week, with the opening TT surely creating some gaps.
"The Pyrenees stages will be really demanding. The 100-kilometer stage to Foix doesn't seem that dangerous, but can become decisive, even more difficult than a long mountain stage. We'll surely be starting flat-out, and with those difficult climbs, things could become really tough for everybody. The one finishing at Peyragudes brings me many good memories, but it's not going to be quite the same this year. It was a 140km route when I won, now it's 215km! It will be really, really tough.
"When it comes to the Alps, we know all climbs and we're sure they'll be demanding stages, but on week three of a Tour de France, it's not that much about the route rather than having a team with energy left into the tank to support his leader. I haven't really looked at the Marseille ITT, but considering how close the top guns usually are in terms of stamina, some positions within the top five overall could still be decided there."