When Peter Sagan began his pro career in 2010 at age 20 there was talk that he’d be the next Eddy Merckx, a rider who had outstanding ability in breakaways, on climbs, in sprints and time trials. Over the years, despite winning the Tour of Poland in 2011 and Tour of California in 2015, the Slovak became more muscular and climbing became a more dubious proposition. That weakness was in the spotlight on Sunday when he failed to hold the pace the fifth time up the longest climb in an ultra-hilly, even mountainous edition of the world men’s elite road race championship. Appropriately, the three-time defending champion did get his place on the podium, but only to hang the gold medal around the neck of his successor, Alejandro Valverde.
Valverde said that, on the podium, “Sagan told me he was really happy about my victory, that if it wasn’t him who stayed in the rainbow jersey, he’d like me to take over as world champion.”
Before Sagan started his career eight years ago, Valverde had already taken three medals at worlds: a silver (behind teammate Igor Astarloa at Hamilton, Canada in 2003), a second silver (behind Tom Boonen at Madrid in 2005) and a first bronze (behind Paolo Bettini and Erik Zabel at Salzburg in 2006. That same year, Valverde was outed as one the 56 riders named in the Operación Puerto blood-doping scandal. After a couple of related suspensions, including a two-year ban by the UCI, the Spanish rider didn’t fully return to racing until 2012. He then won three more bronze medals in successive worlds: at Valkenburg, the Netherlands, in 2012; Florence, Italy, in 2013; and Ponferrada, Spain, in 2014.
Now he has a gold to complete his seven-medal collection. And the 38-year-old from Las Lumbreras—a village on the outskirts of Murcia in southeast Spain—won the rainbow jersey in spectacular fashion. He was the only man who could stay on the wheels of climbers Romain Bardet of France and Michael Woods of Canada on the 25-percent slopes of the narrow, bumpy Höttinger Höll that towers above the city of Innsbruck, Austria. That was the tough part. The easier part was beating Bardet and Woods in their sprint finish 8 kilometers later.
Speaking after a highly emotional celebration with his Spanish national team—along with his habitual Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana of Colombia—Valverde said, “This is incredible. I’ve fought for many years, and finally I get it. It was a really long sprint, where I had to take the initiative. I kept checking my rivals’ reactions and the finishing banners until, with 350 meters to go, I thought: ‘Now I attack and don’t wait for anyone else!’ I was looking at them from below my saddle, seeing they remained close but not able to overtake me. After that, the emotions, the feelings, were something I won’t ever forget. I’m speechless.”
Asked about his finally winning the title at age 38, an age when most pro cyclists have long since retired, Valverde said, “I can’t believe it. I just can’t. It’s my biggest pro victory, something I’ve been chasing for during my entire career. I even thought I would never become world champion. I didn’t get obsessed about it anymore. I always went to the worlds with an aim to do well, but knowing it was too hard to win, even more so when you’re one of the top favorites. I had almost surrendered to that fact, but it all turned out well today.
“I had a superb day. We raced really well. The weather conditions helped a lot—and I was able to make that dream finally become true. I think about my family, and all those who love what I do and always support me—this goes to them, to everybody who is happy, even many rivals who came to congratulate me after the finish. This goes to all of you.”
Besides coming at the tail end of a lengthy pro career, Valverde’s victory comes at the end of a tumultuous season, only 14 months after breaking a leg in that wrenching crash at the 2017 Tour de France prologue in Düsseldorf, Germany. This year, he went into the worlds with 13 season wins, including two stages of the recent Vuelta a España—where he was challenging in second place until the final mountain stage. After eventually finishing fifth overall two weeks ago, Valverde and his national team colleagues went to an altitude training camp in the Sierra Nevada of southwest Spain. “I think the training camp helped us a lot,” he said. “We were able to build strong bonds, become a real family, and that had a real impact. Everyone remained really focused at all points of the race. My job was ‘just’ to be there at the right moment.” That moment came in the final 10 kilometers, on the double-digit slopes of the Höttinger Höll.
Closing his Innsbruck press conference, Valverde said, “I’m so proud to wear this jersey for the next 12 months. I’ve been at other world championships where a teammate won and I enjoyed it, but taking it yourself is just special. There’s some time left for me before retiring, but with such a victory, I can already leave this sport happy. Everything which comes after this is a bonus. Everything after the crash was already a plus. I thought my career was over at Düsseldorf. Coming back, winning 14 races, becoming world champion—it’s a big joy!”
Next year, the worlds are in Yorkshire, England, on a course that suits both Valverde and Sagan. Maybe that will be the time for the Spanish veteran to hand gold back to the talented Slovak.