Don’t go, Alejandro. Not like this.
The camera arcs round the corner, Carapaz low on our screens. Behind him the wheel slips, and with it our sense of normality. A Valverde DNF. A collector’s item.
There has been talk of his retirement throughout the season, but this race retirement may make talk of the more final version rather premature. There is rarely a perfect time for a cyclist to retire — and it is even more rarely taken up — but this would be quite possibly the most un-Valverde like way he could possibly retire.
2021 has been the year of resurgence. Not just of the sport itself, back to normality, but old warhorses like Valverde and Mark Cavendish to their former glory, no longer tarnished by uncompetitiveness. Of course their success comes conditionally –it comes with inevitable talk of them running out of road. But the autumn of their careers have resembled a National Trust postcard, the late year’s sun reflecting gold off the auburn leaves.
For a sprinter like Cavendish, the poetic end is easily identified; a final win on the Champs-Elysée would have marked the perfect end. It was not to be, but there is still an option for a return to the Tour and a final push past that record of stage wins would still be a more than fitting end. That is infinitely preferable to Andre Greipel’s — no last moment of surging glory, but a quiet press release at a Tour where his highest place was 5th in a highly reduced bunch.
But for Valverde, a rider marked as much for his versatility as his longevity, the poetry is not as obvious. Another win in Flèche Wallonne? At Liege? Or take your pick of Spanish stage races. But the Vuelta a Andalucía does not seem a big enough coliseum for the lion’s final roar.
The truth is that, for a man so obviously keen to avoid the life of press gatherings, sponsor greeting and punditry that makes up the lives of most former cyclists, there probably isn’t a perfect time for him to retire. He is still so close to the front of the bunch that a big win would likely do nothing more than restore the wind in his sails, keeping him on the road and hunting for yet another. If he can still win, what is the difference between 41 and 42? A retirement after a gradual petering out of performance, meanwhile, a slipping backwards into the anonymity of the peloton would offer an end more akin a testimonial than a Champions League final. It will hardly ruin his reputation, but for a man as used to life in the hot seat as Valverde, it offers little enticement. The man is a born competitor — he has never simply attended a bike race in his entire life. He is an animator.
The will he/won’t he will be one of the most interesting transfer season stories. Movistar may have recruited heavily, but there is no rider who can offer what Valverde does. If he does decide to return, Movistar will of course accept. To paraphrase William Henley, he is the captain of his fate, the master of his soul. His head is bloody, but unbowed.