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Alejandro Valverde

Endura's Gran Campeón

Story by Endura February 21st, 2017

#Bala100

In October 2016, we sat down with Alejandro Valverde at Movistar Team's traditional end-of-season conference in Pamplona, where he assured us that he had nothing more specific on his agenda for the coming year than to "keep winning as much as possible."

Just three weeks into the new campaign, he recorded his hundredth career victory, sealing a remarkable century with a record-breaking fifth GC triumph at the Vuelta Andalucía.

Five seems as significant a figure for Valverde as the more commanding three-digit milestone. A week before his triumph in Andalucía, he had recorded a record-breaking fifth victory at his home race, the Vuelta Murcia. In April, he will seek to break his own record for victories at La Flèche Wallonne with a fifth title.

Maintaining the hit rate of the man they call El Bala - "The Bullet" - for even a single season would be a remarkable achievement for most of the peloton. For Valverde, it is business as usual. For Endura, supporting such a versatile and prolific rider, preparing for victory is simply part of the deal.

***

Alejandro Valverde breaks into laughter, abruptly altering the tone of what had been an unexpectedly serious conversation.

When did he decide to ride the 2016 La Vuelta a España, the last of the season's three Grand Tours, I wonder, having already raced the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France?

"Three days before," Valverde says, smiling broadly.

Despite his ferocious aspect on the bike, among his team-mates Bala is the life and soul of the party, joshing the new recruits and sharing jokes with the old hands. He is similarly relaxed with Endura's team of experts, a small delegation despatched to Pamplona from Livingston, led by Michelle O'Connor, Endura's head of garment technology, who describes him as one of the easiest of Movistar Team's riders to work with.

When we sat down to talk, however, he bordered on sombre. Now it is the Valverde so familiar to his team-mates that takes centre stage, the rider universally greeted, in Movistar Team circles at least, with cries of "Hombre!".

"I had an idea, but I didn't make up my mind until just before La Vuelta," he continues. "Three days is a little exaggeration, but it was just before La Vuelta."

Perhaps it was the change of tempo that caught Valverde unaware (something that rarely happens in a race). Before we sat down, he had spent nearly an hour trying on clothing for his 2017 campaign, one in which he will again contest Le Tour and La Vuelta.

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Loving the work

Valverde's demeanour during the fitting session has been purposeful, but relaxed. He knows what he wants, having raced in professional cycling's top tier since 2005, and also having worked with Endura for the last three seasons. The Spaniard clearly has faith in his Scottish tailors, who kept him dry in the Ardennes Classics, warm in the snow-blown Giro d'Italia, and cool in the summer heat of France and Spain.

Valverde clocked up an impressive 92 race days in 2016, winning a record fourth edition of La Flèche Wallonne, and finishing on the final podium at the Giro d'Italia in his first assault on the race, having won the sixteenth stage. Where does he find the stamina?

"You have to be talented, but you have to like what you do - to like racing. Also, you need a team that is behind you, to keep things well planned across your career; not just year-by-year, but to keep a constant line over your season to make sure you don't make any mistakes, otherwise its very difficult."

Valverde then is a man who views things in the long term. He has been part of the Abarca Sports set-up since 2005, and the team's leader since it was branded Movistar Team in 2011. Now his brief might accurately be described as "anything and everything", though he has yet to tackle the cobbled Classics.

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Bella Italia

To break new ground at 36 is impressive, and 2016 was the first in which he raced the Giro. Note that he didn't travel to Italy merely to take part. His objective was to contest the overall victory. By finishing third at his first attempt, Valverde added to his status as a throwback: a rouleur as effective in Grand Tours as the Classics.

Having now sampled each of cycling's three-week races, which does he regard as the hardest? The Giro is the choice of the cognoscenti: beautiful, brutal, and, quintessentially Italian, bursting with passion.

"When it comes to race distances and race profiles, then the Giro is the hardest of the three Grand Tours, but from a psychological point of view, when you consider the pressure on your shoulders that all riders have at the Tour, then I consider the Tour to be way harder. Everyone has to be at 100 per cent. That's why I consider the Giro to be a step behind the Tour."

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Domestique deluxe

Such insights are rare, almost by definition. Few in the modern age tackle each of cycling's longest engagements, such is the degree of specialism. Having led Movistar Team at the Giro, he then assumed the role of domestique deluxe to Nairo Quintana at the Tour.

Both men, in separate conversations, stress the harmony within Movistar Team, and indeed it is obvious when you spend time among them. That harmony, however, must have found itself stretched at the Tour, during parts of the race in which the older man was clearly stronger than the younger? One thinks of stage nine, when he rode clear with Alberto Contador (then Tinkoff, now Trek-Segafredo) and Team Sky's Sergio Henao? Valverde argues not.

"I was just sticking to the plan. We had a strategy, which was Nairo as leader, and we were all focussed on helping out Nairo when he needed it. Even though there were moments when I looked as though I was stronger than him, it wasn't the goal. The goal was to take care of Nairo, and that's what I did. I had no problems with that."

These are not idle words. Valverde's sincerity can be judged by his actions. Just eight weeks after the Tour, he rolled out again in support of Quintana, this time at La Vuelta. Were his emotions not more mixed on this occasion, playing a supporting role in a race he had previously won, and in his home Grand Tour? What did he feel as he rolled into Madrid, with the young Colombian in red?

"I was proud, not only of Nairo, but of the whole team: the support staff, the mechanics, the masseurs, the sports directors. I was happy and proud for all of them. I felt sort of relieved about making that happen, staying together until the end."

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History maker

Valverde is demanding, if undemonstrative. There is nothing hostile in his demeanour, even if he is unaccepting of anything less than perfection. He is at the centre of a discussion about a new rain jacket, and, when he tries on his new skin suit, requisitions O'Connor's tape measure to ensure the leg length is to his satisfaction (this, she confides, is the only variation from standard sizing that Valverde demands).

To work with one champion is more than most sponsors can hope for. To work with two is a privilege indeed. Valverde's feedback, as with that of his co-leader Quintana, is invaluable to Endura. To be the best, one must work with the best.

Valverde has delivered historic victories in each year of Endura's partnership with Movistar Team thus far, including a record-equalling third victory at the Vuelta Andalucía in 2014 (a tally added to in each subsequent campaign), a record-equalling third victory at La Flèche Wallonne in 2015 (as well as a third victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, three days later), and a record-breaking fourth victory on the Mur de Huy in 2016.

Add his status as UCI world number one in 2014 and 2015, and a podium finish in each of the three Grand Tours, a different one in each year he has worn Endura clothing, and it's clear that Valverde's input is gained from an almost unparalleled record of achievement. Continuing 2017 in the same vein, Valverde has raced to his hundredth career victory within the first four weeks of this new campaign.

The maestro is centre stage again, and already. Play it again, Bala. There is still more history to be made.


Footnote: Alejandro Valverde has recorded 100 victories as a professional. He has won the Monument Classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège on three occasions and in 2009 claimed overall victory at La Vuelta a España.
Pamplona, Navarre, Spain