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By Andrew Hood
Denis Menchov will never be accused of being outspoken.
A man of few words, the 29-year-old Russian clearly prefers to let his legs do the talking.
So far through this Vuelta a España, the Rabobank captain has kept his cards close to his chest. He’s ridden with solid consistency in the decisive mountain and time trial stages to take firm control of the race, but he’s loath to talk about it.
For the past few days, Menchov has more or less avoided the media as the Vuelta pushes south toward the next decisive stage in Sunday’s mountain stage into Granada. Until then, Menchov seems intent on avoiding any unnecessary stress.
Yet when he does speak and he offers such headline-grabbing lines as, “There’s still a lot of Vuelta to go,” you get a feeling he actually means it.
His wariness is perhaps grounded in the unpleasant memories of stage15 in the 2005 Vuelta, when the entire Liberty Seguros team gangedup on him on rainy and foggy climbing stage across the brutally steep mountainsof Asturias. Menchov lost more than five minutes and tumbled out of the Vuelta’s golden race leader’s jersey for good… or so it seemed. Soon after the finish in Madrid, apparent winner Roberto Heras learned he had tested positive for EPO and Menchov became the first Russian to win the Vuelta.
Menchov gives away very little, but there’s more to Menchov than meets the eye.
A father of three, he’s settled comfortably in Pamplona, Spain, where he’s lived since 1999. He speaks fluent Spanish from his days at Banesto and gets by with English now that he’s on Rabobank.
His teammates agree he’s a universally nice guy, but admit they don’t know much about the guy.
Earlier this season, VeloNews and a Dutch journalist sat down with Menchov to try to get behind the stoic mask of the man who could become the first Russian to win the Tour de France. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
VN.com: You won the Vuelta in 2005 by default; do you consider it your victory or something less?
Denis Menchov: It’s important for me. The most important thing about the 2005 Vuelta was that it gave me that confidence that I could do well in a three-week tour. After winning the Vuelta, I came to the Tour thinking I could win this, too. It’s very difficult to compare the Vuelta and the Tour. The differences are big between the Tour and the Vuelta, and I tried not to forget this. The level at the Tour is higher; the hours of work are longer, too. At the Tour the stages are 200km, 220km. At the Vuelta, 150km, 170km – so that’s an extra hour to hour-and-a-half of racing each day. Add that up every day for three weeks, that’s significant. What’s sure is that I have to improve my resistance.
VN.com: How do reflect on winning the Vuelta in 2005 following the doping positive of Roberto Heras?
DM: Nothing has changed. That Vuelta win is a statistic. It wasn’t the best way to achieve it. But for me the most important thing – whether or not I change the second place for the first – is that I was very satisfied with how this Vuelta unfolded because I demonstrated I could fight for victory in three weeks. It gave me more confidence.
VN.com: Now it’s been revealed that the team of Heras was involved with Fuentes and Operación Puerto, does that make you feel more like the winner?
DM: I don’t know, a lot of time has already passed. It doesn’t matter to me if Heras or his team might have been implicated in the Puerto scandal or not. What I missed out on was enjoying the final day in Madrid to be able to stand on the podium. Later, I am called the Vuelta winner, but that doesn’t matter to me as much. I am now looking forward toward the future.
VN.com: Many people say they don’t know much about Denis Menchov, that he doesn’t talk a lot?
DM: I am like I am. I don’t change a lot. I don’t like to talk a lot, especially about the future, that I am going to win this or I am going to win that. Maybe that’s where that impression comes from.
VN.com: But are you ambitious?
DM: Of course I am ambitious, because otherwise you couldn’t do the hard work and fight to try to win races. You always have to have a goal and strive for it. Then we’ll see if I can achieve them. It’s a balance between patience and ambition. In two or three years, I think I will be at my peak of my powers. But if I haven’t reached my goals, then maybe I will run out of patience!
VN.com: Did you dream about winning the Tour when you were growing up in the Soviet Union?
DM: When I started to race, it was still the Soviet Union and things were still very closed. Not a lot of news from the foreign races ever made it in the news in those days. When I started to get more serious about racing – when I was 15-16 years old – you could follow more of the Tour and the other big races. It was very interesting every year.
VN.com: You started late to cycling, what other sports did you try?
DM: I started cycling when I was 12. I don’t know if that’s very late. I also tried cross-country skiing and biathlon for one season. I like to hunt and fish. It’s more to pass the time in the countryside than to kill the poor creatures.
VN.com: What’s your biggest strength?
DM: To be relaxed and not panic, that’s especially important in a big three-week tour.
VN.com: Your weakness?
DM: Experience. You could see it last year in the Vuelta. The stage to Granada, Valverde lost the jersey to Vinokourov, that was experience.
VN.com: What do you do when you relax?
DM: I call my wife or I watch movies on my computer. Russian movies. Comedy.
VN.com: You’ve been living in Pamplona for many years now, is it harder for the Russian riders to have to leave home to race in Europe?
DM: It’s all the same for us Russian riders. We have to leave home to look for our cycling future. Most go to Italy. It was different for me. I came to Spain. There aren’t any Russian teams for the young riders to join. You must come to Europe. We are all still Russians. I am not friends with all the Russian riders, but we get along. I speak with them when we are at the same races. I know Kolobnev well from when he was at Rabobank and Karpets, too.
VN.com: Did you have a Russian cycling hero?
DM: The strongest memory that’s recorded in my brain was when Evgeni Berzin won the Giro (in 1994). He was the first Russian to win a big European race. That was really something fabulous.
VN.com: Do you fancy becoming the first Russian tour winner?
DM: First I have to continue working. The most important thing is to keep concentrated and not lose your head over such trifle things. I cannot say that I am trying to become the first Russian to win the Tour. I am aiming to win the Tour. If I become the first Russian, well, that’s just an extra. I prefer to focus on my professional ambitions.