By Andrew Hood
Vuelta wide open with week to go
With one week left, the Vuelta a España has what the Tour de France didn’t at this point of the race – suspense.
Following Sunday’s action on the steep climbing time trial to Sierra Nevada, the Vuelta sees Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) holding a five-second lead over Alejandro Valverde (Valenciana-Kelme) going into the decisive six-day run to Madrid.
The surging Santi’ Perez (Phonak), a winner of back-to-back mountain stages, is poised in third at 1:45 back while Spain’s “Mr. Steady,” Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears), is still in the hunt at 2:02 back. With two summit finishes and a final-day time trial still on tap, everyone agrees the Vuelta is still wide open.
“The race is much more open now. Valverde is closer and Santiago Perez cannot be discounted, either. It’s always better to be in the lead. I’m used to being under pressure and I’m going to continue to fight,” said Heras, who could only muster third Sunday. “I think the three who are in the lead now are the three who will be on the podium in Madrid, but we don’t know in what order.”
Valverde believes if he can stay close to Heras at Covatilla on Wednesday and Navacerrada on Saturday, he can erase any differences on the flat time trial that concludes the Vuelta in Madrid on Sunday.
“My position overall has improved enormously. I am very close to Heras and a lot of things can happen in the final week of racing,” Valverde said. “There’s also space for me to lose it. We can’t forget Heras is the best climber in the world.”
Cunego likely to leave Vuelta
Giro d’Italia champion Damiano Cunego will likely leave the Vuelta during Monday’s rest day. According to Saeco sport director Giuseppe Martinelli, Cunego is already thinking about the world championships in his hometown Verona next month.
“We’ll decide Monday if Damiano stays,” Martinelli told VeloNews. “We said from the beginning that he likely wouldn’t race the entire Vuelta, but we have to wait to see how Damiano’s feeling.”
Cunego was hoping to win a mountain stage, but hasn’t been able to follow the charged-up Spanish riders racing on home roads. Cunego finished more than six minutes off the pace in Sunday’s climbing time trial and sits 14th overall.
No Simoni, Bartoli for Italians
Italian national selector Franco Ballerini has named his team for the 2004 world championships, but such stars as Michele Bartoli and Gilberto Simoni are not among the 13 starting riders.
The selection for the Italian world’s team is always heated, doubly so when the race is being held on home turf. Bartoli was once again overlooked, as was Simoni and World Cup leader Davide Rebellin, who was so steamed he’s taken out an Argentine license to be able to line up in Verona.
Italy gets an extra rider with the addition of Olympic champion Paolo Bettini and will line up with 13 starters, just like Spain as defending champion. Bettini starts as the designated team captain with Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso getting co-leader status.
There will be huge pressure on the Italians and especially Bettini to win. Also lining up are Dario Cioni, Dario Frigo and Roberto Petito (Fassa Bortolo), Luca Mazzanti and Emanuele Sella (Panaria), Cristian Moreni and Franco Pellizotti (Alessio), Leonardo Bertagnolli (Saeco), Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola), Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile), Luca Paolini (Quick.Step-Davitamon), and Filippo Simeoni (Domina Vacanze).
Spanish team stacked as well
The Spanish world championship team is nearly finalized, as team coach Francisco Antequera has released the names of 10 of the 13 riders to start. The Spaniards have won three titles in five years and come this time around with defending champion Igor Astarloza and two-time champion Oscar Freire as co-leaders. Another rider with strong options is Juan Antonio Flecha, fresh off a win last weekend in Italy.
Also lining up are last year’s runner-up Alejandro Valverde (Valenciana-Kelme), Paco Mancebo and Iván Gutiérrez (Illes Balears), Chechu Rubiera (US Postal-Berry Floor), Santi Pérez (Phonak), Marcos Serrano and Isidro Nozal (Liberty Seguros).
The candidates for the remaining three places are: Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros), Rubén Plaza and Constantino Zaballa (Saunier Duval), Carlos Sastre (CSC), Pedro Horrillo (Quick Step) Eladio Jiménez, David Blanco and Pablo Lastras (Valenciana-Kelme).
Sevilla wants to pressure Armstrong
Oscar Sevilla said he’s leaving Phonak to join Jan Ullrich at T-Mobile to take on six-time champion Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. In an interview published on the team’s web page, Sevilla said he wants to help the German win the Tour again.
“Ullrich is one of the best cyclists around. With my help and the help of Vinokourov, we have a team that is capable of challenging Armstrong’s dominance,” said Sevilla, who announced the news last week. “I am 27 years old and I am extremely motivated to achieve something special with T-Mobile. My goal is to help the team, through my hard work and sacrifice, so that next season we will be well equipped to win as many races as possible.”
Second in the 2001 Vuelta, Sevilla has struggled to find a winning formula since crashing in the 2002 Dauphiné Libéré. He left Kelme at the end of last season to ride for Phonak, but says he’s only recently been able to ride at full strength.
“After a bad patch last year and my fall at the world championships, I am now riding well again. I have been showing my good form at this year’s Vuelta. So I am optimistic about the future,” he said.
Here are the latest riders making moves for the 2005 season: Despite rumors of his departure, Aussie star Brad McGee is staying with FDJeux.com. … Aitor Gonzalez is still without a team for 2005, but is reportedly looking to return to a Spanish team. … Jorge Ferrio (Paternina), currently sitting 22nd overall in the Vuelta, has signed two years with Saunier Duval … Veteran riders José Luis Arrieta and José Garcia Acosta have extended for one year with Illes Baleares. … Francesco Casagrande, who was fired by Lampre after testing high for hematocrit levels and not being allowed to start the Vuelta, will ride for the rest of this year and into 2005 with Vini Caldirola. The team is negotiating on joining up with Barloworld as co-sponsor for next year, though the team isn’t likely to get a place in the ProTour. … Filippo Pozzato is close to signing with Quick Step, according to a report in Sportwereld.