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What is certain to be just the start of Valverde-mania this season in Spain got under way yesterday in Murcia when Alejandro Valverde appeared as King Baltazar, in his home city's Three Kings' festival. Dressed in flowing robes and with his face darkened with charcoal, the Illes Balears rider spent 'the day of the kings' visiting five hospitals in Murcia and a prison facility, before attending a reception hosted by the city's mayor.
The ever-accommodating Valverde was also ready to answer questions about his plans for the coming season, and these inevitably focused on the Tour de France, for which he is being hyped - in Spain at least - as a definite contender. Valverde said that after handing out presents as Baltazar, he hoped to be able to "deliver happiness to myself and everyone else with my victories. Let's hope it's a special year."
The 25 year old confirmed that he would be taking the start of the season a bit easier than last year, when he felt he put too much pressure on himself early on following his big money move to Illes Balears. "I will focus on the Classics from April onwards and then on the Tour, which is the most important thing," he told AS, acknowledging that he would follow the example of "great champions" like Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong in focusing meticulously on July's big race.
However, he refused to make an direct comparisons between himself and that pair of multi-Tour winners. "It's not a good comparison to make," he insisted. "They were great champions and I would, little by little, like to be like them. I would be happy to win one Tour in my career."
Valverde confessed that he, like most Spanish fans, will be expecting more of himself after his stage-winning Tour debut in 2005. But he added: "I still didn't finish it. I lasted 13 days, which is not too bad. but it's a bit too early to talk about winning the yellow jersey."
Instead, he pointed towards another more likely Spanish contender, former team-mate Paco Mancebo, who has joined French team Ag2r. "Mancebo has raced at the Tour several times and he has always been at the front, so 2006 could be a good year for him. I don't know if he will win but I can see him finishing on the podium," said Valverde.
As for other personal targets, the Spaniard picked out Lige-Bastogne-Lige, a race "that is well suited to my characteristics". As for rivals at the Tour, he picked out Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Alexandre Vinokourov as the main threats, but also mentioned Mancebo and Spanish stage racing's almost forgotten man, Oscar Sevilla.
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