Alejandro Valverde is a lot of things. A survivor is one of them. A performer is another. A world champion. The world champion, at the time of writing. In an interview that took place not before El Bala won the long coveted rainbow stripes he now wears with pride, so often at the front of the bunch, Valverde spoke of solitude in the face of great challenges, of his training, of his art, of fears, of cycling and of a past that he is unable to let go of, that others will not forgive him for.
Valverde on his early years in cycling
When you’re young, you feel unstoppable. As a child I was a champion, but when you’re young and you win, you still think of cycling as a hobby. You don’t see it as a job. When you turn professional, you’re racing against Bettini and Armstrong, against monsters that win everything, which makes you feel inferior. I did beat them once, but it was difficult, and if you feel inferior, it’s tough to beat them. I was already making a name for myself, I wanted to be a key player.
Valverde on El Pistolero
With Alberto Contador, I did become somewhat obsessed. Alberto always had a lot of rivalry and he’s very competitive in any race. We’ve always had this sporting rivalry but on a personal level, we’ve never had any problems.
Beating him made me feel… look, I beat Alberto but only on the sporting level, right? Not on any other level. And I can tell you that Alberto wanted to sign for my team, then Caisse d’Epargne, around 2005, but he said no because he knew that with me there, he wouldn’t be the only leader.
He was starting out, he would have been 22 or so, but I wasn’t that much older. We were both starting out. I mean, what I wanted to do on the Tour, he could do it. And well, I was always ahead in the big races, but I never won the Tour. I’ve been on the podium of all three Grand Tours, but I’ve only won the Vuelta. I don’t think I’ll ever win the Tour.
Valverde on his twilight years
I think that what I have to do is concentrate on the Vuelta and the World Championships. It will be tough, very tough, in Austria. And it’s not that I don’t want the three of us to be on the Tour. I’m not fussed, but if the director, Eusebio [Unzué], were to tell me to make my own schedule, I’d say the Classics, the Giro, the Vuelta, and the World Championships.
Why? Because I don’t have a lot of chances left to win it. I have six medals, but none of them are gold. In Innsbruck it’s very, very tough, but the timing is right. And if everything goes well… Well, let’s see how I recover from this knee thing. Everything’s fine right now, but you never know until you start riding.
Valverde on the risks of cycling and conquering fears
The more that’s expected of me, the more fear I have. It’s what I was saying about now and back then. Now I pretty much have it made in cycling and I’m almost done. So, I race fearlessly, no pressure, no fear of failure, I just enjoy it. As I’m in good shape physically and I have no fear of failure, I make risky moves that I wouldn’t have dared to do before and gamble a lot, but it pays off. Back then, I used to always think, ‘let’s see if’, and I was torturing myself. Everything went well last year: in Catalunya, in Murcia, in the Basque Country, in Andalucia, in Liège, in La Flèche Wallonne… until I fell.
If you think about what’s around you, it’ll come to nothing. That’s when it all falls apart. It’s the champion’s moment, the mountain attack, but in that moment, you don’t think about the meaning of what you’re doing. I think about what I want to do. I don’t see myself doing it. You’re doing your thing.
At the times when there’s the greatest risk of danger, maybe going down a mountain, I never think of anything. Don’t think about it. Don’t think that you’re doing 90km/h on a two-centimetre wide tyre. There have been times when I’ve thought about it… When you’re coming down a narrow mountain with a lot of bends, which is where you’re in the most danger, you don’t think, and you do it without incident. When you have one of those straights, at 80 or 90, and as it doesn’t deviate you start to think about how fast you’re going; you look at the speedometer, go ‘I’m doing 95’, get scared and start to brake.
So, you start to brake and think, look, if someone falls up ahead there could be a pile-up… There, you’re thinking about it, but if you’re focused on what you’re doing, it’s ‘bang, bang, bend, to the right…’ Don’t think, you’re a machine. And you can’t think about whether or not your girl is suffering as she watches you descend, but what do you think about? Of course, she tells me afterwards that she was really scared, but you have to compete and that’s all. She used to get more scared than she does now.
Racing again in competition for the first times after the fall in Düsseldorf, I was a little scared. Especially on the rainy days. If it’s dry, well… But on rainy days, you can’t control the bike and if they fall up ahead, you know you’re going down too. You hit the brake just a little too hard and you’re on the deck. But that’s the way it has to be.
Valverde on superstitions
I don’t have anything that could be a good luck charm. I just have obsessions when it comes to bikes. Let’s say they’re my rituals, like opening and closing the quick release skewers before the stages, putting the left shoe on before the right one: obsessions. I don’t have many, but I keep to them.
Valverde on fitness
[My heart rate is] 32 beats per minute, 33 at rest. The average in a tough race is 145-150. Maximum, around 200, 198. And when I was younger I reached 203. That’s the limit, of course. During a tough stage, I take it three or four times, but only for short periods, of course, but there have been climbs where I’ve been over 185-190 for almost 25 minutes.
In the time-trials, you’re stood still on a start ramp and you’re at 30-40 beats above normal. The adrenaline, the tension, the nerves. And on the mountain? The whole time you’re up there. Then it comes down and goes up again at the next climb. At those heart rates, you absorb lactic acid very well. Your lungs may be able to withstand it, but your legs, as you begin to accumulate lactic acid, don’t release it.
You have to train hard physically for that. It shows. But I’m not very good at that, I get rid of the lactic acid and I’m ready for more exertion. That’s what we usually train. We start off, then every 15 minutes we stop and have our lactates measured. They take blood from the earlobe, they prick you and check it. As you go up at the same heart rate and the same pace, you steadily accumulate it, but there comes a time when you have to go down. However, in my case, and in the case of other riders even more so, maybe you’re going up at the same speed, and instead of accumulating lactic acid, you’re getting rid of it. That’s where the advantage is.
That’s what allows you to attack repeatedly. I recover quickly. I get rid of the lactic acid. Others can’t do it. It’s innate, but you need to work on it. Although there are riders that no matter how much they want to work on it, they can’t because they don’t have the condition. But if you have it, you can improve it.
On cycling’s troubled past
We’ve had a hard time with doping. We’ve weathered the storm somewhat though. It’s well-known that cycling has changed a lot. Cycling is a sacrifice but if you like it… There are times when you have a really hard time but in the end, because I like it, I feel at ease. When you don’t go out, when you don’t train and you’re resting, you’re worse, you get out of your routine. And if they take you out of your routine, you’re not yourself.
This is an adapted version of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 18.6