By Andrew Hood
U.S. Postal’s Roberto Heras knows the cards are stacked against him going into Friday’s 53.3km individual time trial at Albacete. Already at 3:28 behind race leader Isidro Nozal (ONCE), Heras admits his chances of winning the Vuelta a España are slim.
“If Nozal responds like he did in Zaragoza, the Vuelta will be his. I can only hope to lose as little time as possible so I won’t be off the podium,” Heras said after Thursday’s stage. “This stage will be more decisive than the two (remaining) summit finishes. In La Pandera, if you’re in form and remain calm, you won’t lose much time.”
The Albacete time trial is the Vuelta’s longest in 35 years and the flat out and back course in the wind-swept plains surrounding Albacete favor ONCE’s Nozal and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano. Fassa Bortolo’s Dario Frigo and Aitor Gonzalez will be looking to erase some of the time the pair lost in Thursday’s stage while Brit David Millar (Cofidis), second behind Nozal at Zaragoza, will be the outsider with a chance to win.
Heras, meanwhile, lost 3:35 to Nozal at Zaragoza’s 43.8km course and could lose even more Friday. Heras criticized Vuelta organizers, who he says designed a route that didn’t favor the climbers.
“They have disappointed me, especially in the Pyrenees. They have lost the spectacle, the interest and the audience. But what lost more is cycling. I am a climber and I intend to battle, I give all, but you see in the mountain it’s not true climbs,” he said. “They have to study things a little more. Of course, it’s ideal for the time trialists.”
Ullrich bidding prompts talk of Bianchi/Saeco merger
The bidding game for the services of Jan Ullrich is taking another interesting twist this week as the German star’s Bianchi team has confirmed that it is in negotiations with the Saeco team to merge for the 2004 season.
“We’ve had conversations with several teams and sponsors over the last few weeks, but Bianchi is a very real possibility now that they are looking at a merger with Saeco”, said Ullrich friend and coach Rudy Pevenage.
Speculation has also been rampant that Ullrich will consider an offer to return to his old Telekom team, prompting Bianchi to consider alternatives for next season.
Telekom team director Walter Godefroot said that the Bianchi-Saeco talks would not dissuade him from trying to bring Ullrich back to the team. “All of that talk is just speculation in Italy at this point. We are still working hard to bring Jan back to the team,” he said. “We made our offer, they will make theirs… the rest is up to Jan, isn’t it?”
Simoni wants it all
Saeco’s Gilberto Simoni says he still wants to win the Tour de France despite the disappointment of this year’s Tour when he fell flat after making declarations of challenging Lance Armstrong.
Simoni, speaking in Milan during a presentation of a new jersey for the Giro d’Italia, said he wants to focus on the Tour, the world championships and the Olympic road race in the upcoming season.
“I am still open about the Tour, after the disappointment of this year,” said Simoni, Giro winner in 2001 and 2003. “I also want to race the Olympic in Athens. The distance is right for me, much like the (2004) worlds course in Verona.”
While Simoni hasn’t officially discounted starting the 2004 Giro, his comments suggest he’s looking at pushing his racing schedule back with focus on July’s Tour, the Olympic Games and then the world championships in October in Verona, Italy.
“At 33, I still have possibilities to challenge Armstrong and then get ready for the Olympics, which are always the top challenge for an athlete,” Simoni said. “With the worlds in Verona, I would want to be in top form from July to October.”
Valverde signs on through 2007
Kelme isn’t about to let its rising star Alejandro Valverde slip away. Although the 23-year-old was caught in the second group in Thursday’s wind-blown stage, Valverde is seen as the latest Spanish break-out star.
Already under contract through 2006, Kelme has extended Valverde’s contract through the 2007 season. Kelme’s team sponsors are also poised to extend through at least the 2006 season, giving the team stability as it looks to the future.
Beloki sticking with ONCE – for now
Joseba Beloki is holding out with hopes that ONCE’s Manolo Saiz will find a new sponsor before deciding his future. Beloki — recovering from injuries suffered during his fall in the ninth stage of the Tour de France – said he’s going to give Saiz until the end of the Vuelta to find a new sponsor to replace ONCE, which is leaving the team at the end of the season.
“We all believe in this project. The declarations are favorable that the team will continue. I’ll wait until the end of the Vuelta,” said Beloki, in an interview with Europa Press. “I had things ready to sign before the Tour, but I lost them because I believe in the team. You have to take risks and I have taken them to stay with Saiz.”
Earlier this week, Beloki said he won’t race again this season. He decided not to force an early comeback to start October’s Tour of Lombardy World Cup race, but hinted he would ride some criteriums in November.
Nothing new for ONCE, iBanesto.com
With both of Spain’s premier teams looking at the executioner at the end of this season, speculation is rife throughout the Spanish press about new sponsors stepping in to take over the ONCE and iBanesto.com teams.
Banesto’s Jose Miguel Echávarri is said to be close to signing with Repsol, a Spanish gas company, and has only visited the Vuelta once at the stage into Burgos to reportedly keep some key members of the team from leaving. Insiders point to an announcement before the Vuelta is over.
ONCE’s Manolo Saiz is also reportedly working on a deal, but evidently isn’t as close as Echávarri. Either way, time is running out for the two managers, who risk losing their top stars anxious to sign contracts for next season. Banesto has already lost Juan Antonio Flecha and Juan Miguel Mercado, both of whom signed with Quick Step.
No GP Nations for Moreau
Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) won’t start the GP des Nations time trial race Sunday, race officials announced. Moreau is sick and will be replaced by Mikel Astarloza (Ag2r). Moreau’s illness also throws doubts on his status for the upcoming world championships.