The article in questions is titled “Opinion: Six reasons we should trust Valverde” and refers to his vein of incredible form even as he is now 37 years old. I’m going to shred it piece by piece and insert my own thoughts, comments and questions along the way. Enjoy!
[AH]: Hot off his third-career Ardennes double, Alejandro Valverde is like a fine Spanish wine that just keeps getting better with age. In 26 race days so far this year, he’s only finished out of the top-20 once, and won a WorldTour-leading 11 stages and races along the way. That’s downright Merckxian by any measure.
While Valverde’s domination is celebrated in Spain — the Spanish dailyMARCA gave Valverde a full-page spread Tuesday to celebrate his 37th birthday — more than a few might be rolling their eyes. You could almost hear the collective groan on social media when Valverde powered to victory Sunday at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. To some, Valverde’s run seems too good to be true.
[Coach Nate]: That collective groan you’re hearing, Andrew, is that Valverde is arguably racing stronger now than he did pre-ban. In order to not think something is amiss, one would have to believe in the erroneous supposition that the pro peloton is cleaner than ever before. It’s not.
More than half of Valverde’s career wins have occurred since his doping ban – roughly 40 pre-ban and 60 post-ban. In fact, he won a stage of the 2012 Tour Down Under, his first race back after serving the ban. When he should have been stale and anything but race ready. Right.
By any measure, he is more successful post-doping ban.
[AH]: There’s an expression in Spain that seems to fit the moment — “No se puede poner la mano en el fuego por nadie” — that roughly translates to, “Don’t put your hand in the fire for anyone.”
Yet rather than blindly thrusting our collective hands into the fire, perhaps it’s better to step back at arm’s length, and look at things contextually. Just how “amazing” was Valverde’s spring? Here are some talking points:
1. Age advantage
The first thing to cause skepticism is Valverde’s age. He turned 37 this week, an age when cyclists often retire. So how is Valverde better than ever at his age? A few things to consider: Valverde has never suffered a serious crash or major injury throughout his career, and his two-year stop for the Puerto ban actually gave his body a break from the day-in, day-out rigors of racing. When he returned in 2012, he said he felt like he had a second chance on life. Remember, Joop Zoetemelk won the world title at 38. And while younger riders are succeeding in today’s peloton, 2017 seems to be season of the 30-something winners. Three of the four monuments this spring were won by riders in their 30s (except Michal Kwiatkowski, 26, at Milano-Sanremo), with Greg Van Avermaet at 31 and Philippe Gilbert at 34. Sure, Valverde is old, but veteran riders will also tell you they know how to train, how to recover, and how to get the most out of their bodies.
[Coach Nate]: How to unpack this concisely? Firstly, Hood compares Valverde to another known doper who also got popped, Zoetemelk. Secondly, I seem to recall Valverde abandoning races due to crashes or mishaps. One in particular was whacking his knee into his handlebars which inflamed his knee and caused him to miss a bit of time. Of greater interest would be the small periods of missed racing due to mystery illness or injury. As we know all too well, when riders are suddenly pulled off their race programs, it can be an indication that they are still glowing and, thus, do not want to risk getting popped in an in-race drug test. Not always, but more often than people either realize or want to admit.
Third, Hood does not have the pedigree of a life-long, national and world class athlete. The older we get, the slower we get. The first to go is power, yet Valverde seems to have plenty of it in the one-day races he’s dominating.
[AH]: 2. Focus on strengths
With that age comes the wisdom of knowing his strengths. Valverde’s schedule is packed with races he knows he can win. In fact, he tries to win nearly ever race he starts (another reason why he’s always hovering in the top 10). The three stage races he won this spring -- Ruta del Sol, Volta a Catalunya, and Vuelta al Pais Vasco— were packed with stages that suit his style of racing. The short, punchy climbs, the undulating time trials, and mid-range mountaintop finales of the week-long Spanish tours are where Valverde thrives. And the Ardennes are simply an extension of Valverde’s favored terrain. Valverde isn’t blowing the wheels off everyone at Ronde van Vlaanderen; he sticks to what he knows.
[Coach Nate]: Valverde’s racing program hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s not like he used to do the Cobbled Classics; he’s always done the Ardennes Classics. He’s also excelled at short stage races; he doesn’t skip them if they support his key race goals – typically the Ardennes Classics and the Tour. He’s always stuck to what he knows.
[AH]: 3. Spring peak
If Valverde was winning everywhere, all the time, then it might be time to hack into his UCI medical files — but he’s not. Valverde targeted an early season peak in March and April, and prepared for the Ardennes classics just like the cobble-bashers do for the northern classics. And now he’s taking a break before returning to the Tour de France as a helper for Nairo Quintana in July, with an eye on possibly targeting the overall in the Vuelta a España. You don’t see Valverde trying to win over the bumpy cobbles at Paris-Roubaix, and he’s given up on the Tour de France, because he knows the longer climbs and time trials are too much for him. This spring was to Valverde what July is to Chris Froome.
[Coach Nate]: This argument might be the most nonsensical. Did Lance try to win everything? Did Indurain? Has any rider after about the mid-80s with the retirement of the Badger tried to win everything? With the expansion of pro teams, pro riders and sophistication around PED programs, specialization had to occur. Just like in track, just like in swimming, just like in triathlon -- just like in any sport with a multitude of distances. Speaking of triathlon, triathletes used to compete in and win at all distances until the Olympic movement started gaining steam in the mid-90s. Then, specialization came front-and-center. It didn’t stop athletes from competing at all distances, but it kept them from being competitive for the podium at any distance almost unanimously. At some point in a sport’s evolution, athletes have to choose the types of races on which they want to focus and excel.
[AH]: 4. Team support
Another major factor in Valverde’s amazing spring run is how well Movistar is riding to support him in both stage races and one-day classics. Movistar is among the few teams deep enough with talent and budget to rival Team Sky across the calendar. Other teams might have an equally stacked squad or even a bigger star, but unless those two elements line up on the day — team support coupled with an on-form captain — it’s very hard to win solely on pure talent. Look at Peter Sagan, clearly the most gifted rider in the peloton: This spring he came away with only one major victory, in part because he didn’t have the team support like Van Avermaet and Valverde enjoyed. Movistar has the horsepower to control the race on the flats, and then the climbers to keep Valverde enveloped inside a protective cocoon. You didn’t even see Valverde at Flèche Wallonne until the final 150 meters of the Mur de Huy because he was being towed at the front of the peloton. And it was same story at Liège, where he finally was forced to move with 500m to go when Dan Martin (Quick-Step) attacked. If Valverde wasn’t on Movistar, he wouldn’t be winning nearly as much.
[Coach Nate]: I agree that a strong team is critical to maximizing the success of the protected rider, and the team itself in the event the protected rider is having an off day, crashes, has a rash of mechanicals, etc. While dramatically presented, I’ll concede this as a very valid point.
[AH]: 5. Calculation beats panache
People often remark about how much they like Valverde’s aggressive racing style, which baffles me. As Valverde’s gained more experience, he’s become more surgical and less of a risk-taker. Earlier in his career, he would make aggressive, crowd-pleasing attacks, often to the dismay of his sport directors and teammates. As he’s grown wiser, he knows where and when to attack to win, and in today’s peloton, that usually means playing a waiting game. And when he finally reached an elusive Tour de France podium in 2015, Valverde didn’t attack once. All he did was follow wheels all the way to Paris to finish third overall. Valverde wins a lot because he has the experience to know when to move in just about every race he starts.
[Coach Nate]: I’ve been watching and following cycling since the mid-80s. Valverde has largely been one of the most boring and predictable riders in the peloton. He has lost quite a few key races – and I’ll go so far as to say more than one World Champion title – due to his non-attacking nature. Especially post-ban. He can be too surgical for his own good, waiting for others to close down dangerous breaks and being towed to the line so he can unleash his lethal kick in the closing couple hundred meters. But, if he’s got to get himself there, forget about it.
[AH]: 6. Winning big — but not that big
And finally, all of Valverde’s victories this spring seem to pass the “sniff test.” There hasn’t been one victory that seems so outrageous to challenge our sense of propriety. It’s not as if he attacked solo from La Redoute to win Liège or won the Vuelta al País Vasco by five minutes. In fact, he won Ruta del Sol by one second, and the Basque Country tour by 17 seconds, each time ahead of Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), another successful 30-something. The Catalunya victory was at a more comfortable 1:03 (also ahead of Contador) despite Movistar being penalized in the team time trial. And in the Ardennes, Valverde’s wins came with lethal, perfectly timed finishing attacks.
[Coach Nate]: This is a ludicrous assertion. In this day and age, a rider would be completely moronic to destroy the competition at every whim. This isn’t about gambling with losing by leaving it too late. In a race, you know how to read other athletes. You hear their breath rates compared to your own; you see their body language; how relaxed or twisted their faces get; you see how much sweat is crusted on their kits; how easily and smoothly they’re pedaling; how they react or stop reacting to bursts or gaps opening in front of them; and so on. These and other outputs are taken in throughout the entire race and leads to late race-defining moments. Winning is calculated on so many levels and, guaranteed, one of those levels is “How easy do I make this look?” Our egos drive us to bludgeon the competition. But, if we’ve got something to hide, like PED use, then the athletes must make their victories look real to avoid the OOC (out of competition) scrutiny they would surely be under if they won with ease.
And lest we forget the facial language. The recent sprint finish in Stage 5 of the Tour of the Alps comes to mind. Thibaut Pinot sprints to the stage win, mouth agape, digging for every precious watt he can find to cross the line first. Brent Bookwalter is similarly anguished as he fights for second place. But, Geraint Thomas, overall GC winner and third on the stage? Face relaxed, mouth closed. That shit ain’t right. But, imagine if he took the massive gains from the super secret South African training he did and applied them to that stage. He would have made a mockery of it all.
And, to be clear, I do believe athletes can win clean. I believe in Pinot. He’s the most transparent pro cyclist I’ve come across, in that he has published his historical power data starting all the way back in his junior cycling years. He’s not hiding his progression from anyone. Hard to say that about the vast majority of his peers.
No transparency equates to a metric shit ton of scrutiny and lack of trust. Full stop.
[AH]: So how does it all add up?
To get our heads around Valverde, two things must be considered: First, it must be acknowledged that Valverde served a two-year ban, and while we might not know the when and the where (Valverde never made a tell-all confession), the DNA-linked bag that was part of the Operation Puerto booty helps us guess the how. And since he returned to the peloton, he’s also been subject to the same battery of doping controls that the entire peloton faces, and even more so, because he wins so frequently. If we don’t accept the effectiveness and deterrence of the anti-doping apparatus, then the peloton still has a very serious problem.
[Coach Nate]: Quite the straw man argument. It's doesn't "all add up." What about those 2 years away from cycling? Valverde was training like a monster, the reports go, putting in more hours and miles than ever before. He wasn’t part of the Whereabouts program, so who the hell knows what he did while serving his ban. Since he clearly was a doper, it is more than reasonable to assume he doped to the gills during his ban and continued progressing. It’s also reasonable to assume that, with help, he fine-tuned his doping protocol to minimize the risk of glowing during tests. Two years is an eternity of time to perfect the art of undetectable doping. To think he leisurely – and cleanly – spun the pedals during his ban is downright asinine.
[AH]: There’s another factor that’s just as important. Valverde is one of those rare outliers of cycling talent — the one percent of the one-percenters. Valverde is like Messi slamming home the winning goal, or like LeBron James dribbling his way out of a fix. Valverde seems born to race a bike, and this spring he’s hit the absolute peak of his powers. He’s not coming out of the blue. These are all races he’s won and challenged for victory, year-in and year-out, with a big target on his back and pressure that comes with being a favorite.
[Coach Nate]: I agree, Valverde is a huge talent. No question, clean or not. However, on an even playing field, he wouldn’t win as much as he does. There are too many factors in a sport that doesn’t simply come down to brute force or raw endurance at a steady state effort.
[AH]: Would he risk doping? Who knows, but the fallout would be incalculable. Not only would he banned for life and see his reputation in tatters, but it would likely sink his entire team (we don’t know the details of Movistar’s sponsorship deal, but most contracts have an escape clause for doping cases). And it would be a massive blow for the credibility that cycling has slowing clawed back over the past decade. While there are still doping cases, and there’s no question that some teams and riders push the ethical line — look no further than the TUE scandal brewing in the UK right now — there hasn’t been a major, full-blown doping scandal involving a big star or major team in nearly a decade.
[Coach Nate]: By asking a question that is definitively unanswerable by anyone other than Valverde (and maybe those within his inner circle), Hood tries to create a defensible position for his silly assertions. This paragraph comes across as an apology to the peloton for all those who “don’t believe in miracles.” Based on everything Hood states in this one paragraph, the general public is plain ignorant for not given the vast majority of the peloton the benefit of the doubt that they are, in fact, clean. “While there are still doping cases” serves to minimize the deep-rooted problem of PEDs that is woven into the very fabric of not only cycling, but of quite literally all sports. “Some teams and riders push the ethical line” is another doozy. What’s ethical about cheating? It’s bullshit like this article that propagates omerta and provides (in this case) pro cyclists a Get Out of Jail Free card. The hypocrisy is stunning.
[AH]: There are plenty of tests to prove a rider is doping, but until there is a test to prove that they are not, well, the only fair thing to do is accept and cheer the victories equally across the peloton. I’m not sticking my hands in the fire for anyone, but I’m not going to throw anyone into a bonfire, either.
[Coach Nate]: Yes, this is one approach. Just bury your head in the sand, shrug your shoulders and enjoy the spectacle. Nothing wrong with that. But coupling that approach with ignorance is downright unprofessional for a journalist covering a given sport.
For to believe Valverde is winning clean you must believe one of four things: (1) the entire peloton is clean, or all those placing in the top 20 are clean and it’s only the lower-level pros who are doping; (2) the 6-10% advantage Valverde is no longer getting because he’s racing clean is instead being realized through all of his post-ban revelatory epiphanies mentioned in Hood’s article; (3) Valverde has indeed found the Fountain of Youth and is cheating Father Time in a way that no clean athlete can; or (4) unless an athlete fails a doping test, he or she must be clean.
To say that we need to accept things the way they are with a smile and an “oh, well” is shameful. Really, it is. Journalists are taught to ask “Why?” again and again and again until they get to the nub of the argument. But for myriad reasons, they’re too afraid to go beyond the first layer of the answer. They’d rather get the useless soundbite than find the beating heart of the story. The world needs more like Paul Kimmage.
Valverde is more successful now than before his ban. This is irrefutable. The peloton is not any cleaner. Watts/kg values are creeping ever so close to the days when unchecked EPO use was running rampant through the peloton, yet somehow that’s being done cleanly now? No chance. Not one-in-a-trillion. We’re not seeing a clean “one percent of one percent” athlete winning. We’re seeing a known doper who is still a doper winning. He just happens to be extremely talented to boot. Just like the other 200-ish riders he competes against on any given day.