Thirteen stage wins, 27 red jerseys, and one Vuelta a España title.
The above statistics describe one of the most dominating and influential figures in La Vuelta a España history. However, Alejandro Valverde has meant more to the Vuelta than the plethora of victories he has acquired, decade after decade.
Valverde made his Vuelta a España debut in 2002. Since the following year ‘El Bala’, which translates to ‘The Bullet’, has always finished the loop around Spain. Until this year.
On the fiery stage 7, which concluded on Balcón de Alicante, Valverde attacked with just over 40km to go. Richard Carapaz joined and the duo struck out in a descent. Moments later, Valverde's front wheel collided with a pothole on the apex of a sweeping right-hand corner. He was instantly destabilised which meant his hands briefly parted with his handlebars. Given the offensive intent with which Valverde entered the corner, he had no chance of correcting the mishap.
After realising that Valverde was no longer glued to his wheel, Carapaz glanced behind to see the Spanish veteran land heavily before sliding to a halt between two roadside barriers. Long-term teammate José Joaquín Rojas, who had just assisted Valverde set up the attack, stopped immediately to pull Valverde back to his feet. After lengthy medical checks, Valverde battled on. He wasn’t going down without a fight.
It was to no avail, though, as Valverde quickly realised the fractured collarbone he had suffered left him with no chance of continuing. He pulled to the side of the road where he was unable to disguise his emotions. Valverde sobbed into his handlebars as Movistar staff swiftly moved in to console him, producing one of the memorable images of the 2021 Vuelta a España.
Alejandro Valverde at the 2021 Tour de France (Image credit: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)
Valverde’s premature departure has had a profound impact on the race. Behind Enric Mas and Miguel Ángel López, Valverde may have provided critical depth in Movistar’s GC hierarchy. The Spanish outfit's tactical flexibility is heavily reduced without the 41-year-old present. With three GC riders, employing unique, daring tactics in order to shake up the race is less risky. With two riders racing for red, Movistar must act with vigilance.
Valverde may have quickly fallen out of GC contention anyway, but his departure also inhibits Movistar’s ability to win stages. The team still seek stage victory at the 2021 edition, and only six riders have ever won more stages at La Vuelta than Bala.
Further still, Valverde’s experience alone would have been paramount in Movistar’s attempt to win the red jersey. Between them, Mas and López can hardly boast half the Grand Tours starts Valverde has made throughout his career. His guidance may have been equally as critical as his legs.
But Valverde’s sudden departure from La Vuelta means more.
Alejandro Valverde celebrates his first Vuelta a España stage victory in 2003 (Image credit: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
In January 2021, Valverde stated that the season would be his last, meaning the 2021 Vuelta a España would be the final Grand Tour of his extensive career. However, the 41-year-old made a contrary statement months later, suggesting that he may prolong his time in the pro peloton into 2022.
Could this have been our final opportunity to watch Valverde at La Vuelta a España, or any Grand Tour? At present, we cannot be sure.
After serving a two-year doping suspension in 2010 and 2011, Valverde is something of a controversial figure in the cycling world. Despite not being universally adored, no one can deny that he has spearheaded Spanish cycling across three different decades.
Now into the 2020s, could this finally be the moment the baton is passed to younger generations? Moreover, if it is indeed Valverde’s final Vuelta a España, now is the time to acknowledge his achievements and astounding longevity. After all, no champion deserves to go out weeping into their handlebars.
Cover image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images