By Andrew Hood
Alejandro Valverde was all smiles in Madrid on Wednesday while he watched Wednesday´s unveiling of the 2004 Vuelta a España. With 11 of the 21 stages hitting medium to hard mountain passes, Valverde and every other mountain goat sitting inside the posh King Juan Carlos convention center couldn´t help but smile.
“It´s a climber´s fiesta,” said Valverde, third overall last year. “It suits me, but it also suits a lot of other riders, too.”
Riders like Oscar Sevilla, Roberto Heras, Iban Mayo and Joseba Beloki all sounded like stuck records: lots of mountains, good for us.
That comes as a surprise since the Vuelta isn´t hitting its most feared climbs. Race organizers have left out Angliru, Lagos de Covadongas and the Pyrénées entirely as they went searching out for new, undiscovered climbs in other parts of Spain.
But that doesn´t mean the 21-stage, 3,023km grand tour is without its opportunities for the time-trial specialists. There are four tests against the clock, including an opening-day team time trial and three ITTs – the last one coming on the final day, for the third time in four years.
But it´s the 29km climbing time trial to Sierra Nevada – not the 30km flat affair on the Vuelta´s final day – that had tongues wagging.
“The climbing time trial is more like a mountain stage than a time trial,” said U.S. Postal Service director Johan Bruyneel. “It equals things out for the climbing specialists against the time-trial riders. At first glance, this Vuelta is definitely one for climbers.”
The Vuelta will start in Leon with a team time trial and push eastward across the flat meseta toward the Mediterranean Sea in a string of flat stages that will let the sprinters spread their wings. The first ITT comes in stage 8, and the peloton faces its first serious challenge in stage 9 with the summit finish at Alto de Aitana.
Stage 12 to the observatory at Calar Alto is a new climb that´s sure to shake up the standings. The course sweeps south along Costa del Sol before hitting Granada and the Sierra Nevada ITT in stage 15. Three more hard mountain stages — La Covatilla in stage 17, Collado Villalba in stage 19 and Puerto de Navacerrada in stage 20 – bring the Vuelta back for the 30km ITT through the streets of Madrid.
The big question, however, was which of the major Spanish stars will be focusing solely on the Vuelta? With Lance Armstrong looking more vulnerable than ever, riders like Mayo, Beloki and 2002 Vuelta champion Aitor Gonzalez were all looking ahead to July, not September, as the most important date on the calendar.
“The Tour is always the most important race, and it certainly will be for me this year,” said Gonzalez, who suffered through a less-than-spectacular 2003 season. “I am going to put everything into the Tour, then we´ll see about the Vuelta.”
As for Valverde, he was once again smiling. The rising star said his top goal of the season is the Vuelta.
“I want to move higher on the podium. Since I was third last year, that doesn´t leave much room for anything except winning,” he said.
Check back later today for photos and more reactions from VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood.
2004 Vuelta a España
six flat stages
11 medium to high mountains
1 team time trial
2 individual time trials
1 climbing time trial