I am cool with this, although I need to explain why...
Valverde's win in the World Championships last weekend caused somewhat of a stir in the cycling world, but it's impact on David Millar's Twitter account? Well that was something else...
Following a succession of posts commenting on the finale, backing the Spaniard, the trolls came out in force, so prolifically so that David canned the app for a few days. The below recount offers an explanation behind the polarising opinion on our new World Champ.
Picture the scene: a Sunday afternoon in Catalonia, on the terrace of my Dad’s house, my wife’s out bike riding, I’m looking after our three children, the Worlds are on. My Dad invited me and the kids over to watch it together. He has a pool, so the kids are in it and their Grandad has taken over Dad duty so his son can watch a bike race.
Why do I love the Worlds? I wrote about it in The Racer, ‘It has an energy about it like no other. Outside of the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games it’s the only time in the year we get to race for our country, which means different riders, different staff, different team kit. It all feels new, which is something of a tonic by September, after a season of racing, travelling through airports and constant hotel hopping. We’re exhausted; we just want it to be over - and so, for many of us, the Worlds will be our final race of the year, which gives it a last-day-of-school buzz. The fact we’re reunited with old friends and have been chosen to represent our home nation makes it all the more meaningful.’
I won’t lie, as a spectator I’m often disappointed when watching the Worlds. Mostly it’s too predictable, all suspense no thrill. Yet watching this year’s edition was different, it had relevance.
I’d returned from Innsbruck 24hrs before. I’d been there as a politician rather than a spectator and I hadn’t seen one moment of bike racing and the whole experience had been a living encyclopedia of mixed emotions. I knew what I was doing there was right while also accepting pre-destined defeat.
Why was I doing it? In a nutshell: I was trying to make the sport better by recognizing and publicizing the fundamental dysfunctionality of the current athlete representation at a stakeholder level in negotiations.
I’ll leave that there and skip over the CPA election as I consider it a magnum opus that will take time to initially complete and requires a different voice to this one.
The reason I’m writing this is an attempt to explain a few tweets I made while sitting on my Dad’s terrace watching the Worlds on an iPad with my phone in my hand. Like Begbie with a pint glass on a balcony.
It was a good race, the kind of Worlds we see every ten years. It excited me, I began to see things moving and could read the action before it was happening. I’ve grown accustomed to vocalising it with my commentary job. So I talked to myself and messaged Ned Boulting and tweeted.
The racers I watched attack and those nearby were riders I know, people I’d very recently been in deep Whatsapp conversations with, talking about their livelihood and how we can improve it. In truth I’ve never been as close to professional bike riders as I have been of late.
One rider I’ve never been close to is Valverde, I don’t Whatsapp with him, yet I’ve known him as a bike racer longer than nearly any other. I remember when he turned up on the scene and looked like a kid who’d borrowed a bike, yet he’d beat us all in bunch sprints and out climb us on summit finishes. He just kept getting better, he took drugs, he got even better, he beat Lance atop a mountain at the Tour de France, blew his knee out, came back took more drugs, eventually got caught, got banned, came back and didn’t see any need to apologise. And he kept getting better.
And you know what? Through of all of that he’s been the most gentle man. I watch bike races for a living now, and I see him differently, I’ve never seen a bike racer able to switch between leader and domestique as willingly as him, he can do it multiple times in the space of one race, and with it there is no baggage, he just does his job. And he is truly magnanimous in defeat. We hear the mantra ‘day by day’ repeated over and over again in modern cycling, Alejandro Valverde truly embodies it.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a Valverde lovefest, the reason the two of us have never formed any type of rapport is because we’re very different people, we have almost nothing in common apart a profession, and here’s the dichotomy, and I go back to my Begbie analogy to position it. When I saw the group was going to make it to the line I wanted Valverde to win, because the conflict and contrasting opinions it would create would start a much needed conversation.
I know Rusty, I know Romain, I know Tom, and yes, they would have been easier winners to stomach, but I couldn’t help feel Valverde deserved it and the inner fan came out, the person that has followed his career for damn close 20 years, and I empathised with him.
I thought, you know what, he’s different to me, he doesn’t feel weighed down with guilt and a lifelong need to apologise and fix everything. He comes from a different culture where sorry isn’t as prevalent as it is in mine, he just gets on with it and doesn’t deal with the meta scale of it all, he fixes himself and lives a better life as an example and is supported in doing so and is not vilified ad infinitum. Watching how the race was panning out I began to accept something, and I said it 'out loud'...
The system allows him to do that, it is his right, while at the same time taking into account his doping past and target testing him more than others, which is normal, he exists under a presumption of guilt, it is extremely difficult, nigh on impossible in fact, for Alejandro Valverde to take drugs and get away with it. To race year-in-year-out all season long at the highest level is his attempt at proving his natural worth, because if you take drugs you peak and trough not only in one season but year-in-year-out. Valverde doesn’t do that, he keeps trucking on through spring, summer, autumn, winter, year after year, switching roles as required, winning when it works out, losing with dignity when it doesn’t, racing always.
And here’s the rub - doesn’t this very fact mean at a basic level the anti-doping system in cycling works? I say basic because there is so much missing from it beyond the science of testing. For starters there is no rehabilitation program for an athlete that is banned, he or she is left to their own devices, expected to fix themselves. I fixed myself differently to Valverde, and that’s because I’m a different person from a different culture - I have to say sorry, I feel like I have to fix everything, that’s just me. For a while I did feel that it was wrong that athletes returning from their ban didn’t act like me, but over the years I’ve realised the system doesn’t’ educate them to, it’s not their fault they don’t and we shouldn’t blame them for not living up to our misplaced expectations. The system has failed the sport in that respect, I believe there should be a duty to educate and prevent if you're given a second chance, that was never asked of Valverde, or any other cyclist returning from a ban for that matter.
By the time Alejandro Valverde had turned 13 he’d already earned a nickname, El Imbatido (the Unbeaten) - being that good that young is a curse for many, burn out or fatigue forcing them to the wayside, another wunderkind bites the dust. Although at the same time the true greats in any sport have shown their abilities from the youngest of ages. There’s one thing that separates Valverde from the standard fuoriclasse: ever since being a neo-pro he has carried himself differently, jovial, humble, encouraging, never aloof or flippant, always true to his trade and in love with every pedal stroke.
Peter Sagan is one of the greatest cyclists we’ve ever seen, in my opinion he has rescued our sport from a descending spiral of blandness, he reminds us of why we love cycling, not only the eccentricity but the sheer excellence with which he delivers it. He lost his World Championships this year, on a course that was too hard for even him, but he still made it on to the podium. He did something I've never seen before and I'm not sure has ever even happened, he presented Alejandro Valverde with the gold medal, one champion honouring another. That doesn’t normally happen. And I know this will disturb the keyboard warriors, but the peloton respects Valverde, and I believe Peter Sagan wanted the world to see that.
I also respect him. I don’t like the fact he’s never publicly shown contrition for his doping, but I get it, and I don’t think we have the right to blame him for that, when there has never been any rehabilitation program in place to educate him. And it’s for this reason I decided to publicly say I am cool with Alejandro Valverde being World Champion on Twitter, and I knew it was like Begbie throwing a pint glass over the balcony into a crowded pub, and you know what? Fuck it. I may have dipped my toe in the murky waters of sports politics, but that doesn't mean I'm obliged to be politically correct.