Marvel from Murcia finally claims rainbow jersey
Spanish rider from Movistar Team rounds off 15-year quest to for the top step of the Worlds podium with brilliant race in Innsbruck, which leads ‘Bala’ to greater heights in cycling’s ‘hall of fame’
15 months after a compound leg and ankle fracture in a brutal crash against a barrier on stage one of the 2017 Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) wrote the most beautiful page of his legendary career as a pro cyclist in another German-speaking city, Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian Tirol. ‘Bala’, the ‘Bullet’, is finally the champion of the world.
The leader of the Spanish national team, brilliantly protected by his seven team-mates, rode with immense composure, and only took a leading role in the race at the exact moment it was required: the 2.8km, 11% average-gradient, 28% maximum Gramartboden, also known as Höll (‘Hell’). As Michal Kwiatkowski, Primoz Roglic or Simon Yates were already out of contention before that last climb, only seven riders were able to contest the victory on its slopes: Michael Valgren (DEN), who escaped from the bunch at the final ascent to Igls; Julian Alaphilippe, Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot (FRA), Gianni Moscon (ITA), Michael Woods (CAN) and Alejandro, who got through the ‘wall’ with big patience while Alaphilippe and Moscon struggled to keep the group’s pace.
A big, late effort from Tom Dumoulin (NED) to join the Woods, Bardet, Valverde trio, those leading the race through the top of the Höll, did not make for further moves in the run-in to the finish. Valverde was forced to take on a very long sprint, always leading the group, yet one that was fully worth it. Alejandro claimed his 122nd pro victory, undoubtedly the most relevant, and sees his efforts being made justice as one of the sport’s biggest legends, claiming a rainbow jersey after fifteen years, and six medals, in the Worlds’ road race.
Alejandro Valverde: “I can’t believe it. I just can’t. It’s been so many years fighting for it, and we finally made it. It’s my biggest pro victory. One that I’ve fought hard to achieve for all these years. Something I’ve been chasing for during my entire career. I’ve been so close, so many times, six medals yet no golds. I even thought I would never become world champion. I didn’t get obsessed about it anymore. I always went to the World Championships with an aim to do well, but knowing it was too hard to win, even more so when you’re one of the top favourites. I had almost surrendered to that fact, but it all turned out well today. I had a superb day, we reaced really well, the weather conditions helped much – and I could make that dream finally become true. I think about my family, and all those who love what I do and always support me – this goes to them, to everybody who is happy, even many rivals who came to congratulate me after the finish. This goes to all of you.
“Above them all, I want to thank my Spanish national team-mates, for their outstanding job. They made me remain so calm, all of them working hard for this success. I think the training camp we held in Sierra Nevada last week helped us much. We were able to build strong bonds, become a real family, and that had an impact on the race’s events. Everyone remained really focused at all points of the race. My job was ‘just’ to be there at the right moment, seeking for the distance where I had to launch my moves, go for the sprint and win. The rest, they did it for me. I knew I couldn’t disappoint them, I had to give my all for the team.
“It was a really long sprint, where I had to take on full responsibility. I kept checking my rivals’s reactions and the finishing banners until, with 350 meters to go, I thought: ‘Now! I attack and don’t wait for anyone else.’ I was looking at them from below my saddle, seeing they remained closed but not able to overtake me. After that, the emotions, the feelings, were something I won’t ever forget.
“I’m so proud of wearing this jersey for the next twelve months. I’ve been at other World Championships where a team-mate won and I enjoyed it, but taking it yourself is just special. Sagan told me he was really happy about my victory – that if it wasn’t him who stayed in the rainbow jersey, he’d like me to take the baton as World Champion. There’s some time left for me before retiring, but with such a victory, I can already leave this sport happy (smiles). Everything which comes after this is a plus. Everything after the crash was already a plus. I had through my career was over at Düsseldorf. Coming back, winning 14 races, becoming World Champion – it’s a big joy.”
Picture (c): BettiniPhoto.net