By Andrew Hood
Monday’s exciting stage at the Vuelta a España saw the return of polemica, a tried and true European journalistic tradition of a battle of words fought out in headlines.
The “he said-she said” tug-of-wars used to fill the pages of European sports dailies until the dirty business of doping scandals took all the fun out of being a cycling journalist.
Those glory days returned briefly Monday as exhausted and frustrated riders started to point fingers at one another at the finish of the frenetic 214km “queen stage” across the Spanish Pyrenees.
The first salvo came from Team CSC’s Carlos Sastre, who accused Leonardo Piepoli of Saunier Duval-Prodir of openly riding in aid of race leader Denis Menchov (Rabobank).
No one’s arguing that the pair wasn’t in clear collaboration in Sunday’s summit finish to Cerler, when Menchov and Piepoli rode wheel-to-wheel to drop everyone in what was a perfect scenario for the former Banesto teammates: Piepoli got the stage and Menchov surged into the leader’s jersey.
Sastre was insisting that Piepoli crossed the line Monday when the Italian climber helped Menchov just when his Team CSC was revving up the speed to try to isolate and then pressure the Russian on the final climb.
“We’re seeing some alliances. It’s a real disgrace when a rider from another team helps the leader of the race,” a frustrated Sastre said on Spanish television. “This race could be a lot more exciting if that weren’t the case.”
To prove his point, Sastre said he feigned troubles with about 6km to go, pretending to be struggling to stay with the lead group of favorites.
“I played a little theater today to see if what I was thinking was true,” Sastre continued. “Piepoli straight away attacked the group. That proves that alliances are at work here.”
The comments quickly caused a ripple through the peloton as journalists raced to ask all the major players if something so nefarious as alliances might be in the works.
Piepoli, who finished seventh in the eight-up sprint won by Menchov, calmly denied he was blatantly working for Menchov.
“The comments by Sastre are overblown and came at the heat of the moment after finishing the stage,” Piepoli said. “All I did was ride my own race. I was the only rider who attacked up until 4km from the finish.”
Saunier Duval sport director Joxean Fernández also shrugged off the suggestions of a pact between the teams.
“That’s a ridiculous claim. Our strategy was to try to win the stage today. That was clear from the start. We had Marchante in the breakaway to try to stay away, and if that didn’t work, we had Piepoli to attack in the end,” Fernández said.
“And that’s just what happened. When Piepoli attacked, there was too much headwind and there were too many riders who worked together to chase him down. The only way Piepoli can win a stage is to attack the others and arrive alone. When there’s a eight-man sprint, Piepoli will finish ninth.”
Menchov, too, said there was no formal agreement between the two. He said it was circumstances and common interests in Sunday’s stage that brought them together to Cerler.
“Leo was just racing his own race today. I don’t know if anyone will believe me or not, but we didn’t exchange one word on the final climb or during the entire stage,” Menchov said. “That’s the way Leo always rides. He changes the rhythm with attacks to try to drop people. Today he wasn’t able to do it because there was a lot of headwind and the group was still too big with strong riders.”
Manuel Beltrán, the popular veteran on the Liquigas team, saw it Sastre’s way. He said he believed Piepoli was helping Menchov keep a high pace among the favorites to tamp down the temptation of attacks.
That high pace spelled doom for his solo effort for a stage win, Beltrán said.
“There are always alliances in big races. Yesterday they worked together to get Piepoli the victory and today he was paying back the favor,” Beltrán lamented. “For me, it was doubly bad because the circumstances today worked against me. I would have loved to have won the stage. It’s my dream, but it was spoiled today. Alliances like that don’t help the spectacle of the race.”
Alliances are nothing new, of course, but a good, old-fashioned polemica sure spiced up what was already a pretty good day at the races.