Alejandro Valverde, winner of the 2009 Vuelta a Espana, will return from a disputed two-year doping suspension to lead the Movistar team at the Santos Tour Down Under.
And two more of the peloton’s grandee teams, Saxo Bank and Garmin-Cervelo, have confirmed their line-ups for the opening race of the WorldTour calendar, which starts with the Down Under Classic on Sunday January 15.
Valverde’s two-year ban, imposed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, expired just four days ago, on December 31 2011. It stemmed from a ban imposed by the Italian authorities following the Operacion Puerto scandal. The UCI and WADA appealed to CAS for a worldwide ban and won. Valverde has consistently denied doping and has never tested positive.
The Spaniard, a three-time Tour De France stage winner, twice world number one, and winner of the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in 2006, will be reunited with colleagues at the Movistar squad, sponsored by Caisse d’Epargne when he last rode in 2009.
Mike Turtur, race director of the Tour Down Under, welcomed Valverde’s return, and tipped him as a contender for overall victory.
“I believe Valverde is one of the favourites for this year’s race. The experience he had here when he last raced in 2010, will have him well placed to be a big threat to take out the overall win,” he said.
“The Old Willunga Hill and Stirling finishes suit Valverde’s style of racing so we expect him to ride well.”
Valverde will lead an all-Spanish line-up in the Tour Down Under, further evidence of a burgeoning nationalism among WorldTour teams. Movistar’s seven-strong team will include Spanish road race champion, Jose Joaquin Rojas, who finished 14th overall in last year’s Tour Down Under and won the best young rider competition in 2009.
“Rojas will certainly be one to watch in 2012 alongside Valverde,” Turtur said.
The Saxo Bank squad of multiple Grand Tour winner, Alberto Contador, will be led at the Tour Down Under by Sergio Paulinho, a two-time Tour de France stage winner, Vuelta a Espana stage winner, a silver medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games and Portugese road race champion in 2004 and 2008.
Young Australians, Luke Roberts and Jonathan Cantwell, make their WorldTour debuts in SaxoBank colours at the Tour Down Under, having ridden the 2011 race for the UniSA-Australia national team.
Roberts, a south Australian, is likely to enjoy the support of crowds in Adelaide, while Cantwell will seek to build on the success of a career built outside of professional cycling’s top tier.
“With 37 victories in his career, most in Australia and the US, it will be interesting to see the impression he can make on the WorldTour stage in 2012,” Turtur said.
Garmin-Cervelo’s Tour Down Under squad will be led by the Canadian, Ryder Hesjedal, who played a key role in Thor Hushovd’s stage 16 victory at the 2011 Tour De France after the Norweigan had reeled in his own failed breakaway. Hesjedal will be joined by New Zealander, Jack Bauer, who will make his WorldTour debut after riding in 2011 with the Scottish team, Endura Racing.
The 2012 Santos Tour Down Under will be held in Adelaide and regional South Australia from January 15 to 22.
Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Imanol Erviti (ESP), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (ESP), David Lopez (ESP), Angel Madrazo (ESP), Javier Moreno (ESP), Jose Joaquin Rojas (ESP).
Sergio Paulinho (POR), Anders Lund (DEN), Luke Roberts (AUS), Jaroslaw Marycz (POL), Jonas Jorgensen (DEN), Jonathan Cantwell (AUS) and Takashi Miyazawa (JPN).
Ryder Hesjedal (CAN), Jack Bauer (NZL), Robbie Hunter (RSA), Nathan Haas (AUS), Heinrich Haussler (AUS), Andreas Klier (GER) and Martijn Maaskant (NED).