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By Andrew Hood
Riders from the U.S. Postal Service team went on a three-hour training ride during Monday’s rest day to keep their legs fresh for the upcoming battle in the Pyrenees.
The 56th Vuelta a España hits a trio climbing stages Tuesday to Thursday that will determine whether or not Roberto Heras can repeat as Vuelta champion. So far, the quiet Spanish rider has had difficulty in the Vuelta’s first two climbing stages and sits in eighth place overall at 2:47 back.
“I haven’t thrown in the towel yet,” Heras said. “It’s true I am not going well right now. I don’t know exactly why, but at the same time, I am feeling better every day. I have tried to attack but I haven’t been able to maintain my rhythm. The Pyrenees will be decisive for me.”
The Postal Service team finds itself in the unexpected position of having Levi Leipheimer in fifth-place overall at 1:54 back, giving the team a second option for the overall standings should Heras stumble.
“We’re all surprised at Levi’s strength in the mountains. Roberto is still our team leader but now we have two options at hand, which isn’t so bad,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of the U.S. Postal Service.
Leipheimer has been the revelation of this Vuelta. Overall race leader Joseba Beloki said if it wasn’t for some bad luck for Leipheimer who lost one minute when he got caught up behind a crash in the third stage, the American could very well be the overall leader now instead of him. It’s something Leipheimer agrees with.
“Yeah, I think I could be in lead right now, but that’s cycling and I can’t worry about that,” Leipheimer said after his training ride Monday. Leipheimer finished in the top-three in both time trials and has ridden with surprising strength at Lagos de Covadonga in the fifth stage and again Saturday up Alto Cruz de la Demanda.
“Our number one goal is still to help Roberto win the race. If Roberto and I ride strong, I still think I could finish in the top-five, maybe even the podium,” said the 27-year-old. “I think Roberto is going to ride well in the Pyrenees. He always comes on strong later in these big races, so the team is still confident.”
Three-straight summit finishes will shakeout the overall standings of this still very much open Vuelta. Tuesday’s 168-km stage hits two category-one climbs to finish at La Molina, a ski area in the Catalan Pyrenees. Wednesday’s 154-km stage features six rated climbs and ends with a beyond-category summit finish at the Andorran ski resort at Pal. Thursday’s 17-km climbing time trial takes the peloton to Arcalis, another ski area in Andorra.
The Vuelta is still anyone’s race. Eleven riders are within 4 minutes of Beloki’s lead. With five lead changes already through nine stages, just about anything could happen.
“I think these Pyrenees stages are the key to victory in this Vuelta,” said Beloki, leading a major three-week stage race for the first time in his career. “We have seen that Kelme has its weaknesses, more with (Santiago) Botero than with (Oscar) Sevilla. This first week of the Vuelta has been complicated, with two time trials and two mountain stages. I think the winner will be determined in the Pyrenees with Arcalis as the most decisive stage.”
Sevilla, second at just 14 seconds back, sees it the other way around. He thinks the race will come down to the final time trial in Madrid.
“I don’t think the Pyrenees will produce the big differences because all the best climbers will watch each other very well. I believe Botero can still win this race. He can regain time at Arcalis and we will see from there,” Sevilla said. “Between Beloki and I, I think Beloki is the stronger rider. He has more experience and fitness than me at this moment, but we will keep fighting.”
Festina’s Angel Casero, third overall at 51 seconds back, is also growing more confident by the day. Casero, second last year to Heras, thinks he can win the Vuelta if he comes out of the Pyrenees in a solid position.
And Leipheimer? He thinks he can win the individual time trial to Arcalis on Thursday.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m thinking about giving Lance (Armstrong) a call to see if he has any advice,” Leipheimer joked.