Reaching the pinnacle of sport is something few of us can relate to, and it elicits such a special feeling that it can be difficult to turn away from.
That feeling can work against you though and there are plenty of examples of stars who clung to the high of competing that little bit longer than they should have.
Likewise, Michael Jordan. The greatest basketball player of all-time could have had the perfect end to his NBA career in 1998 as he led the Chicago Bulls to their third-straight title and sixth in eight years. Yet he couldn’t let go and tarnished his legacy when he came back for an ill-fated stint with the Washington Wizards from 2001-03.
Staying too log in the saddle is not something that Alejandro Valverde can be accused of just yet though.
At 37 and having crashed out of the Tour de France last July after a fall which left him with a broken kneecap, many wondered whether the Spaniard veteran’s 16-year cycle in professional cycling had finally run its course.
Most would be content with the long list of accolades he has collected – among them the 2009 Vuelta a Espana crown, four Liege–Bastogne–Liege titles and five La Fleche Wallonne trophies.
Any lingering doubts as to whether the Bullet should have pulled the trigger on his days at the top following his abrupt end to 2017 have been answered emphatically in the early months of 2018.
Victory in Abu Dhabi yielded a second title of the year after his Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana triumph last month, while his ascent to the No1 spot on Jebel Hafeet was his third stage win of the year.
Movistar man Valverde is right to chase his dream Hollywood hurrah. But on this evidence there are still a few more scenes remaining before this film star of cycling’s credits begin to roll.
Defending Abu Dhabi Tour champion Rui Costa revealed he “pushed himself to the limit” in a bid to retain the title he famously won a year ago.
The Portuguese secured a memorable victory on home soil for UAE Team Emirates on Jebel Hafeet 12 months ago – the Stage 3 win last February setting up glory at the Yas Marina Circuit a day later on the team’s debut campaign as a UCI WorldTour side.
This time, Costa, Fabio Aru and Diego Ulissi all battled for victory on Stage 5 on Sunday, but ultimately fell short although Ulissi and Costa both finished inside the top 10 as Alejandro Valverde took home the crown.
Costa, 31, finished ninth on Sunday, 55 seconds behind Valverde, with Italy’s Ulissi eighth and Aru 16th.
It meant a second top 10 finish in a row for Costa, coming eighth in the GC with Ulissi seventh.
Costa, the 2013 world road race champion, said: “We put in a lot of effort in the first part of the climb, and in the final part we pushed it to the limit to secure a top 10 place.
“We knew it would be a really challenging stage at Jebel Hafeet, but we saw it as an opportunity to benchmark my condition against the other riders.
“It was great to ride again in Abu Dhabi, see the support of our home fans and we look forward to a long and successful season with the team.”
Ulissi, 28, added: “I had a better day. The final climb was really hard, as we knew. I haven’t raced since Australia and I only managed a short training camp before Abu Dhabi.
“Maybe, in comparison to some other riders, I missed some rhythm. But I am quite satisfied, especially to get a top 10 finish in the final stage and in the overall GC.”
And even though climber Aru missed out on a win on his UAE debut, the 2015 Vuelta a Espana champion can be satisfied with his bow after joining from Astana, claiming 13th place overall. “It was my first race of year and I missed rhythm. But that was an important test and I’m satisfied.”
The team’s riders will now depart for Europe ahead of an action-packed March calendar that includes the Strade Bianche (March 3), Paris-Nice (March 4-11) and Tirreno-Adriatico (March 7-13).
He may be approaching 40 but the marvel that is Alejandro Valverde proved he remains one of the best cyclists in the world by powering to victory at the Abu Dhabi Tour.
The Spaniard is just two months shy of his 38th birthday but showed all the experience collected from his 16-year professional career as he put in a vintage display to win Stage 5 on Jebel Hafeet and with it take the overall GC victory.
The mountainous finale seemed tailor made for the Movistar man and he got the Hollywood ending he desired.
After positioning himself among the leading group at the base of the 10.8km summit, he stayed in pursuit as Bora-Hansgrohe rider Davide Formolo made the initial move before breaking away to catch Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez with four kilometres remaining and holding off the challenge of the 24-year-old Colombian – 13 years his junior.
Even more remarkable was the fact victory extended Valverde’s impressive start to 2018 – having returned in January only five months after breaking his knee cap on the Tour de France’s opening stage on July 1.
Delight in Abu Dhabi follows on from victory at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and top five finishes at the Vuelta a Murcia (second), Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana (third) and Trofeo Lloseta-Andratx (fourth).
And with Valverde showing no signs of ageing, he’s determined to carry on for as long as possible.
“There’s no secret to winning at this age,” said No101, who chalked up the 101st victory of his storied career.
“My physical condition. I love my work, it’s what I do but it’s my passion and if I continue winning I will continue riding. I’m really happy with what I’m doing and with my team. I know I’m a rider that gets big wins and am always there.
“I feel as strong as I was last year. I started in Majorca and then in Valencia I knew I was in good shape.”
It’s a career that’s been punctuated as much by controversy as it has by glory. Valverde was suspended for two years in 2010 after being found guilty of blood doping at the 2008 Tour de France.
And asked if his return was sweeter then or now, he replied: “It was different. 2012 was beautiful when I came back to win Vuelta a Andalucia (his first victory in nearly three years) but probably this year has been more beautiful.
“2012 is really far away. I think about today and the future. I’m happy with what I’m doing.”
Once up the grueling Jebel Hafeet ascent is enough for most riders, but Valverde revealed he took it on three times earlier in the week in order to test his legs and pick spots from which to attack. And the man known as the Bullet revealed that triggered his win.
“I was here since Friday, I did the climb on Friday and twice on Saturday so I knew it already,” said the Las Lumbreras native.
“I studied the places where I might try to attack. I also came here early to adapt to the climate and small time change.
“And it was a really good idea to do that as it helped me win the stage. I knew exactly what I needed to do to attack. It’s a really important win for me and the team and our motivation.”
Overnight leader Rohan Dennis put up a good fight on the final stage in a bid to remain in charge, with the Australian determined to shake his tag as a time trial specialist as he targets the Giro d’Italia GC later this year.
Otra más!!!— J.V. García Acosta (@jvgarciaacosta) 25 February 2018
The BMC Racing rider, who had started the day 14 seconds ahead and 24 in front of Valverde, dropped halfway up the climb but still did admirably to claim 23rd place on the stage and ninth overall.
By the finish, the leading duo had around 15 seconds on the chasers and, as they approached the final bend, Valverde used all his experience to sweep by Lopez on the inside to cross the line for this third stage win of the year, and overall victory ahead of Team Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman and Lopez.
Consolation for Lopez came with third overall and earning the white jersey for the best young rider, and he said: “The podium and the white jersey make it a good result for me.
“As always, I’ve had a great team to try and get the victory. But Alejandro Valverde is a great champion. Already to arrive with him up this climb is an achievement. To beat him in a sprint is almost impossible for me. So I’m happy with what I got in Abu Dhabi.”