By Andrew Hood
Alexandre Vinokourov’s road to the Tour de France won’t be going through Georgia this year.
Vinokourov’s Liberty Seguros team isn’t making the trek next month for the Tour de Georgia, and Vinokourov – who won the final stage and the overall at the Vuelta a Castilla y León – will instead defend his title at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“This year I am preparing everything for the Tour and we are planning to have no pressure before that,” Vinokourov told VeloNews in an interview this week. “I think I can return to the Tour podium.”
The battling Kazakh – third overall in the 2003 Tour and fifth last year – revamped his racing schedule this year to make a clear run for the Tour podium. He’s skipped Paris-Nice and won’t start the Giro d’Italia, like many of the Tour favorites are doing this season.
Instead, he’ll race only at Liège and in June’s Dauphiné Libéré before his date with July.
“I will train specifically for the Tour and make a high-altitude training camp,” said Vinokourov. “That’s the only race I am preparing for right now and all the other racing is tranquil without pressure.”
On Thursday’s fog-shrouded climbing stage at the Castilla y León, the 14km ascent of the steep Alto de Navacerrada, Vinokourov attacked in the final kilometers to test his legs, dropping such riders as Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Chechu Rubiera (Discovery Channel) to cement his lead with one day remaining .
Then, on Friday, the blond Kazakh shot away from the main bunch with a kilometer to go in Friday’s run into Segovia, reeling in the attacking Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel) and Aketza Peña (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
He dropped the frustrated Basque with 150 meters to go in the climbing final sprint along the ramparts of the monumental city to score two wins in one day.
“I didn’t come here to win, but my objective was to make a test in the time trial and the climb at Navacerrada (on Thursday) to test my progression,” Vinokourov said. “I couldn’t win the time trial, but I got the leader’s jersey. These results show that the hard work over the winter is paying off.”
Vinokourov said he’s not close to top shape yet, but his impressive late-stage runs in both Thursday’s and Friday’s races indicate he’s coming into an early season peak in time for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he’ll line up as defending champion in about a month’s time.
After that, he’ll only race in the Dauphiné Libéré before July’s Tour de France.
Liberty’s Kazakh experiment is already paying dividends. Along with Vino’s overall and stage victory, Andrey Kashekchin won a stage at Paris-Nice earlier this month to give the team its most recent wins.
Discovery Channel also walks away satisfied, with the team trophy, Manuel Beltrán in the best climber’s jersey and Popovych with a nice stage victory in the individual time trial. Jason McCartney came within a second of winning his first race in Europe when “Popo” just pipped him in the TT.
Both riders had lost time in the previous stage, allowing Vinokourov – who finished third at 12 seconds slower than Popovych – to take the overall lead.
Lampre in charge in Italy
One of Italy’s rising sprint stars, Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital), took the honors in Friday’s 184km gallop into Ermilia during the fourth stage at the Settimana Ciclistica in Italy.
Teammate Damiano Cunego retained the overall leader’s jersey with one stage to go.
Napolitano, who also won the opening stage, out-kicked Brett Lancaster (Panaria) and Murilo Fischer (Naturino) to grab the stage in 4 hours, 40:32 (40.89kph).
Earlier in the stage, Irish rider David O’Loughlin of Navigators figured in the day’s main breakaway. Working with Belgian Oliver Kaisen (Davitamon-Lotto), the pair slipped away at about 45km and built up a lead topping six minutes. Lampre opened up the chase to reel in the adventure and set up the sprint for Napolitano and maintain the leader’s jersey for Cunego.
Cunego takes his two-second lead into Saturday’s final stage, a 163km run from Castellarono to Sassuolo.
Tough day for TIAA-CREF
Thursday’s fourth stage at the Tour de Normandie wasn’t good for the TIAA-CREF crew. According to a team report, not much went right.
Mike Creed woke up feeling feverish with a cough and abandoned after being dropped by the peloton. Some 30km later, Taylor Tolleson crashed heavily.
Then Rabobank took advantage of the mayhem following the spill to attack in heavy crosswinds, leaving overnight leader Brad Huff to nurse his injuries from his spill in the final meters of Wednesday’s stage.
Huff – winner of the first stage in a sprint – lost the leader’s jersey to stage-winner Jos Van Emden (Rabobank).
Milram hits Flanders course
Members of Team Milram hit the decisive parts of the Tour of Flanders route, riding from Kwaremont to Muur de Grammont.
“This is the third times that I come to the Tour de Flandres. The first time was in 1997 and the second time was 2002, I have retired in both the races. I know that it’s surely few for one who has as goal to do well in this race,” Alessandro Petacchi said in a team release. “I know that need a particular spirit for this run, I won’t surely start for winning, but I want to do experience for to complete my professional skills.”
The team was optimistic about its chances, but realizes it will be especially hard against the Belgians, who ride super-motivated in Flanders just as the Italians do at San Remo.
“The Tour de Flandres is a beautiful race. I was fourth last year and I hope to do better in this 2006 with the jersey of Milram,” said Erik Zabel. “This race is different from all the other races: It needs a different mental approach. I think we can do well.”
Mazzoleni like Jan’s plans
Teammate Eddy Mazzoleni thinks Jan Ullrich’s plan to race the Giro d’Italia is right on target.
Ullrich confirmed earlier this week he’ll race the Giro (May 6-28) for the second time of his career and will use the mountainous route to test his legs ahead of July’s Tour de France.
“Jan is convinced that the Giro is the best preparation for the Tour that he wants to win again nine years after his first victory,” Mazzoleni told AFP. “He’s coming in slow into the season, but I think he’ll be ready for the Giro. He won’t fight for the overall, but he can shoot for one of the time trials.”
Zanotti down for four weeks
Italian rider Marco Zanotti (Unibet.com) will be out for at least four weeks after his fall in the GP Waregem this week in Belgium. Zanotti, 32, broke his clavicle in four places and injured his elbow, sidelining him for all the northern classics.