LAC DE VASSIVIERE, France Alejandro Valverde kept up his intense training regime during his two-year doping-related ban and his efforts have been paying off in a promising start to the season.
Valverde claimed his fourth win of the season in the third stage of the Paris-Nice race on Tuesday by holding off Australian Simon Gerrans in a finale that was tailor-made for him.
"It's a very, very important victory because it's on Paris-Nice, one of the top stage races on the international calendar," Valverde told reporters.
Valverde, who was banned from racing after being implicated in the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal, returned to action in January and is determined to make up for lost time.
Movistar team doctor Jesus Hoyos said he rode 48,000 kilometers in 2011 despite his suspension.
"He never stopped, he worked extremely hard. He was with us on all the training camps and he was the strongest of the squad," Movistar sports director Yvon Ledanois told Reuters before the start of Tuesday's stage.
Valverde spent four years worrying about his cycling future after his name was allegedly linked with a blood bag seized by the Spanish Guardia Civil when the Operation Puerto scandal broke in 2006.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) tried to prevent him taking part in the 2007 world championships and, in 2009, the Italian National Olympic Committee banned him from racing in Italy for two years after matching his DNA samples to the seized blood bags.
"During that period, I could not be satisfied even when I was winning," said Valverde.
"Now I am more relaxed, I can train more relaxed and it shows this year."
Valverde's success, however, will not help his team's chances of securing a World Tour (elite) license for 2013 as the points scored by the Spaniard will not be included in Movistar's tally. A new rule states that teams cannot include points earned by riders back from a doping ban for two years after their return.
Valverde, however, was not concerned, saying: "I bring victories to my team, not points. We'll make the calculations later."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)