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Much has been said about the lack of interest shown by the Spanish media in the Classics, not least by some of the country's leading riders, but a sea change may well have taken place following Alejandro Valverde's victory in Lige-Bastogne-Lige on Sunday.
Naturally, Valverde's exploit in becoming the first-ever Spaniard to win 'La Doyenne' was not enough to knock football off the front pages of Spain's sports papers. But he did get a mention on them alongside Rafael Nadal, who beat world tennis number one Roger Federer yesterday, and defending Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso, who finished runner-up in the San Marino GP. Valverde is clearly one his country's leading sports stars, and that is no bad thing for Spanish cycling.
While very pleased to have won Flche Wallonne last Wednesday, Valverde and his Caisse d'Epargne team were elated with success on Sunday in cycling's oldest Classic. "I feel like I've written a historic page in our cycling history," said Valverde, who said his win was far from easy, although it may have looked it at the finish in Ans.
"Easy? Not at all," he told AS. "They were 262 very hard kilometres. The pace was fast and there were some great riders in the sprint. So it wasn't easy."
Valverde paid tribute to the work his team put in, notably Joaquin Rodriguez, which allowed him to save all he had for the final sprint. "Rodriguez's escape with Boogerd made things easier for me because if they had got to the finish together he would have had a good chance against the Dutchman. I felt like I was the fastest in the group, and when Sinkewitz attacked I saw my chance and knew I had to take it."
Having failed to last the pace in the Amstel Gold Race, Valverde admitted he learned a lesson. "I took precautions so that I didn't suffer the same weakness. From a certain point I was eating every 10 kilometres and that meant I got to the finish with a decent amount of energy," he explained.
His team manager, Eusebio Unzue, commented: "We've spent more than 20 years trying to win this race and finally we have. It was clear Alejandro was a great Classics rider, we just had to convince him of that. His capacity to surprise us is limitless. As the next question is bound to be about his chances at the Tour, I have to say that he is still not ready. Experience is important at the Tour, and physical maturity, and he still hasn't got them."
Caisse d'Epargne team boss Jos Miguel Echavarri also expressed his delight after 26 years of waiting at Lige. "I have never been able to win La Doyenne with one of my riders. Perico [Delgado] and Miguel [Indurain] were both fourth. just off the podium. I thought after Miguel we would never win it, but with Alejandro we have," he said.
"I felt such joy last year when he won at Courchevel [in the Tour] in front of Armstrong, but this is stronger still," Echavarri added. He also suggested that it was too early for Valverde to win the Tour, but added: "Valverde showed today he can deal with the Classics, last year at the Tour he showed he can climb. A new era is about to begin. Armstrong is no longer around, his throne is vacant. All we can say is that Alejandro is now among the group of pretenders."
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