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On the verge: The real Roberto Heras; Mayo picks Armstrong; McGee suffers headaches

The cycling world should see the real Roberto Heras in this year's Tour de France, Liberty-Seguros directeur sportif Manolo Saiz said Friday. And if all things go according to Saiz's plan, the new model will not look anything like the Heras who helped Armstrong win three of his five Tours. Saiz says he will look more like the rider Heras planned to be before switching from Kelme to U.S. Postal after 2000, when he recorded a best overall Tour placing of fifth. Saiz said Heras has prepared differently for this year's Tour than in the past. Asked for specifics, Saiz declined to elaborate,

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

The cycling world should see the real Roberto Heras in this year’s Tour de France, Liberty-Seguros directeur sportif Manolo Saiz said Friday.

And if all things go according to Saiz’s plan, the new model will not look anything like the Heras who helped Armstrong win three of his five Tours. Saiz says he will look more like the rider Heras planned to be before switching from Kelme to U.S. Postal after 2000, when he recorded a best overall Tour placing of fifth.

Saiz said Heras has prepared differently for this year’s Tour than in the past. Asked for specifics, Saiz declined to elaborate, other than to admit to suffering butterflies in anticipation of seeing the results.

“I am as nervous as a debutant because we have tried a lot of new things to change Roberto’s preparation,” said Saiz. “Roberto is ready mentally, and will show his level in the race. (At U.S. Postal) he was never able to demonstrate his real strength. We have increased that capacity.”

Meanwhile, Heras, who is stepping back out from Armstrong’s shadow after playing second fiddle to him for three years, said the Armstrong we see is the real deal.

“Armstrong has no secrets. The Armstrong you see is the Armstrong I know,” he said at his pre-Tour press conference. “He has no weak points, though. After all, he has won five Tours to show it.”

Like most, he named Spaniard Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), German Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) and American Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) as the key favorites. But he also mentioned Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who was fifth overall last year.

Nevertheless, Heras is ready for his first real crack at winning the Tour after twice winning the Vuelta Espana, and denied feeling any pressure for his first real clash against his former team leader, Armstrong.

“I am in the best physical condition than I have been for many years. Mentally, I feel very strong as well,” said Heras, who weighs one kilogram less he did last year.

“To try and win the Tour is my main objective. I am not nervous at all. But the Tour this year is different to last year, as Armstrong will face a lot more adversaries.”

Mayo praises Armstrong
Tour de France contender Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) warns against judging Lance Armstrong’s form on his fourth place in the recent Dauphiné Libéré.

The Spaniard, who won the Dauphiné, said: “Armstrong is still the big favorite. That he doesn’t win the Dauphiné doesn’t change a thing. He is sitll above the rest of us.”

Mayo said he is in better condition than last year, best remembered for his win at L’Alpe d’Huez before a final sixth-place finish.

With teammate Haimar Zubeldia on board again – and with both men enjoying an extra year’s experience – the Basque team has a strong chance of upsetting the pack in the mountains.

Prologue favorite feels pressure
Australian Tour de France prologue favorite Brad McGee reportedly spent most of today in bed with headaches on the eve of his prologue defense.

After winning last year’s Tour opener in Paris and the prologue in this year’s Giro d’Italia, McGee is the red-hot favorite to win Saturday’s 6km Tour prologue in downtown Liege.

The pressure on him to win has increased even more so with the absence of British world time trial champion David Millar (Cofidis), due to his suspension on doping charges.

It was not known what caused McGee’s headaches today, but teammates at the Holiday Inn where the Fdjeux squad is staying said he spent the day trying to sleep off the pain.

McGee is one of 10 Australians in this year’s Tour, equaling the U.S. record for English-speaking riders with trade teams, set in 1986, when the new 7-Eleven team raced it. In 1967, when the Tour still had national teams competing, the same mark was recorded by the British team.