Blazin' Saddles: Centurion Valverde lifts 'rainbow curse' as Pogacar purrs in Algarve
In a week that Slovenian tyro Tadej Pogacar became the eighth youngest rider this century to win a professional stage race, Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde became the oldest rider to notch a win in the rainbow stripes. Felix Lowe takes a closer look at the two opposing ends of the age spectrum blazing a trail eighteen years apart in the pro peloton.
It was never really in doubt. One year on from his record-breaking ascent of the Jebel Hafeet climb in the UAE Tour, Alejandro Valverde (aged 38 years, 10 months and one day) used all his experience, power and nous to win once again – and secure his first victory of the season as World Champion.
Last year, Valverde had already won two stages of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana – and won the overall race – before his victory over Astana's Miguel Angel Lopez at Jebel Hafeet in a year that he stood atop the podium on 14 occasions.
But 12 months on, Valverde was still sniffing out his first scalp of the season when he rode back onto a leading trio of David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) inside the final kilometre of the 10.7km climb before outkicking the Slovenian Roglic for his 100th victory for Movistar.
And so, the supposed rainbow curse was lifted – a mythical curse that never really was during Peter Sagan's three-year tenure in the rainbow stripes. If Sagan's longest wait for a maiden win as World Champion ended on 27 March 2016 at Gent-Wevelgem, then Portugal's Rui Costa, the 2013 champion, had to wait until 22 May 2014 and the Tour de Suisse for his first win.
For Philippe Gilbert, the 2012 World Champion, the wait did not end until the Belgian won stage 12 of the Vuelta the following September, while 2008 World Champion Alessandro Ballan did not break his duck until early August in the Tour de Pologne.
Then again, Ballan was hardly prolific – his 12 career wins some 111 short of the astonishing 123 victories the evergreen Valverde now has to his name: the first 23 coming in the colours of Kelme before Valverde joined the Caisse d'Epargne team that would morph into Movistar.
In fact, of all the World Champions this century, only Mark Cavendish and Sagan got the supposed curse off their backs earlier than Valverde – and they're riders who can (or could) often rely on bunch sprints for easy pickings.
Valverde's latest win was textbook Valverde. Given his advanced aged, gone are the days that he can attack from distance. So, when Roglic made his move early, Valverde sat back and rode alongside Ireland's Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) before choosing his moment carefully to launch his counter.
"It's my first victory of the year, and I was really keen to take it. It was hard, but I felt good," said Valverde, who cited the blustery wind as a particular challenge.
" It was difficult to follow Roglic. He went very early. I knew I had to bide my time and go at the same point I went last year, and that's what I did. It was very important to know the climb and have that reference from last year."
Completing the climb in a time of 26:55, Valverde crossed the line 15 seconds slower than his record-breaking ascent in 2018 – although a strong tailwind was thought to have assisted the riders on Tuesday.
Valverde's victory means the last year's victor at Innsbruck became the oldest reigning World Champion since Paulo Bettini to notch a win in the rainbow stripes – although the Italian went over nine months before he could lift his own 'curse' in 2008.
Cillian Kelly, the esteemed statistician at the Road Book, has also come up with this nugget regarding Valverde's consistency: ignoring his DNF for crashing out of the 2017 Tour de France opening time trial, he has finished in the top 50 in all his races 212 times in a row. To put that into context, his nearest 'rival' in this niche standing is the Italian Diego Ulissi, who is currently on a run of 50.
Although, given the lack of contrition shown by Valverde over his involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal, then these words by Cillian certainly ring true: "Watching him race is like finding 50 quid on the ground when there's no-one around. You have the thrill of feeling a little bit richer, but you also feel a pang of conscience that you probably shouldn't be enjoying it."
If Valverde has made an old-age record for a World Champion, then he still needs to continue pedalling – and winning – for a few years yet if he wishes to surpass American Chris Horner as the oldest WorldTour winner on record.
Over to you, Alejandro…
Dude, where's my Pogacar?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum – and shifting from the Persian Gulf to Portugal – Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) was making records of his own this week.
Having taken the race lead of the Volta ao Algarve with a summit finish victory in Stage 2 on the Alto do Foia ahead of Wout Poels and Enric Mas, Pogacar extended his lead the following day with a blistering ride in the ITT, in which he finished fifth just 17 seconds down on winner Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ).
Pogacar, winner of the prestigious Tour de l'Avenir in 2018, then limited his losses on the Alto do Malhao in Stage 5 to hold on to the overall win ahead of Denmark's Soren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) on Sunday.
Victory in the Algarve means Pogacar (aged 20 years and 156 days) became the youngest male rider this century to top the overall classification of a HC or above WorldTour race.
In the WorldTour today, only Hugh Carthy (EF Education First), Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) have won a professional general classification at an earlier age than the Slovenian wunderkind.
As the same stats guru states in a later tweet, Pogacar's first pro GC victory came on his fifth attempt. Among active main stage racers, only Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang won a pro GC earlier (fourth attempt). Fuglsang, incidentally, contributed to Astana's fine run of form last week with the overall win in the Ruta del Sol.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly magazine shortly after being dropped on Jebel Hafeet by Alejandro Valverde, Pogacar's UAE Team Emirates team-mate Dan Martin said that the 20-year-old was a "huge talent for the future".
" The maturity he's shown, the confidence he shows, it just shows how far the team has come. It makes me feel old that a 20-year-old is winning a stage race. I only had one training camp with him in December, so I haven't spent a whole lot of time with him, but the time I have had has been an absolute pleasure. He's a great kid, and a huge talent for the future. With the team, I'm sure he's in the right place to nurture that talent as well."
There is also a buzz in cycling circles to see such a huge talent who has not been snared by Team Sky, whose Colombian youngsters Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa have also been making ripples this season.
It will be interesting to see where Pogacar goes from here – but who knows, with his armoury of skills, perhaps we're seeing the dawn of a new Valverde. After all, the Spaniard did not take his first stage win until he was 23, with his first GC win coming a year later – giving Pogacar a four-year head start on the record-breaking World Champion.
For now, let's not put pressure on the lad's shoulders by comparing him to one of the sport's greats. Heck, he was only four years old when Valverde's notched the first of his 123 wins to date.
Right now, though, we can safely assume that if Pogacar's rise is not so much of a worry for a 38-year-old Spaniard in rainbow stripes, then it might well be a concern for a 28-year-old Italian struggling for form and fitness – one who finished over 10 minutes down on his team-mate in the Algarve…