By Andrew Hood
Discovery Channel brass is hoping Yaroslav Popovych will be able to carry the torch for the team once Lance Armstrong rides off into the sunset following this summer’s Tour de France.
The 25-year-old Ukrainian set the cycling world on notice this week in Spain, winning the seven-day Volta a Cataluyna ahead of a ProTour field that included 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile).
“I can’t say now I was surprised I won, because I’ve worked hard in all the time I’ve been away from racing,” Popovych said after finishing safely in the main bunch in Sunday’s finale.
Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) won the final stage into Barcelona ahead of Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto), but the real fight was up in the steep mountains of the Catalan Pyrénées and Andorra.
Popovych slipped into the lead following Thursday’s long climbing stage to Pal, finishing second to Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval). The Ukraine then finished strong enough in the following day’s climbing time trial to keep the Italian at bay.
There was no let up in Saturday’s hilly stage, but Popovych rose to the occasion to give Discovery Channel its second ProTour victory of the week (to go with Paolo Savoldelli’s stage win in the Giro d’Italia).
“The key was taking fifth on the (stage five) uphill time trial, and then managing to keep the breaks under control on stage six,” he said.
Popovych hadn’t raced since March after visa problems kept him in his native Ukraine. He said he trained hard, but even he was surprised he did so well in the climbs considering there’s nary a hill anywhere near his home.
Popovych’s nickname is the “Merckx of the amateurs,” after he won rather handily in the amateur ranks after immigrating to Italy in the late 1990s and culminating with the world U23 champion.
He delivered an impressive third-place podium performance in the 2003 Giro and takes the Volta a Cataluyna with eyes toward helping Armstrong come July.
“With me winning here and Savoldelli in the lead in the Giro, Lance can count on some great backing,” he said.
Volta a Cataluyna, Stage 7, Palleja to Barcelona, 113km
1. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Crédit Agricole 2:32:57
2. Fred Rodriguez (USA), Davitamon-Lotto, same time
3. Miguel Perdiguero (Sp), Phonak, s.t.
4. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
5. Claudio Corioni (I), Fassa Bortolo, s.t.
Final overall standings
1. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel 22:33:36
2. Leonardo Piepoli (I), Saunier Duval, at 0:20
3. David Moncoutie (F), Cofidis, at 0:59
4. Michael Rogers (Aus), Quick Step, at 1:18
5. Aitor Osa (Sp), Illes Balears, at 1:23