By Andrew Hood
José Rujano, the diminutive Venezuelan climbing sensation who almost rode away with the 2005 Giro d’Italia, hopes he can return to form in 2008 following two second-rate campaigns when he failed to live up to expectations.
Caisse d’Epargne is the latest European team to give Rujano a chance following below-par runs at QuickStep-Innergetic in 2006 and Unibet.com last year. Rujano didn’t finish either the Giro or the Tour de France in 2006 and didn’t race a grand tour last year as his Unibet team was excluded from all ProTour events.
Rujano, 26 next month, hopes a move to Caisse d’Epargne will help kick start his flagging career. He’s only won one race since his breakout 2005 season.
He’s been pegged to lead the team during the Giro before making a run at either the Tour de France or Vuelta a España.
“I think I can ride a good Giro as well as be in the Tour de France,” Rujano said in an interview with El Universal. “This year’s Giro is good for me. It has only two time trial stages, one for teams and another individual, but like always, the third week will decide everything in the mountains.”
Rujano burst onto the international stage in 2005 after winning the 2004-05 editions of Venezuela’s Tour al Táchira.
He was picked up by Selle Italia-Colombia in 2005, finished second in the Tour of Malaysia before barnstorming through that year’s Giro, winning the epic climbing stage into Sestriere to secure the best climber’s jersey and a third place on the podium.
A nasty off-season contract fight finally allowed him to leave Selle Italia after the Giro (which he abandoned without making much an impact) to race in the Tour with QuickStep. He limped through the Tour and pulled out feigning illness.
Unibet.com picked him up last year, but Rujano never got the chance to race in climber-friendly events as the team was caught in the middle of the power struggle between the UCI and the major race organizers, which torpedoed the team’s chances to race in the major events.
Menchov won’t defend Vuelta title
The road to the 2008 Tour de France likely won’t include a stop in Spain later this summer. If Denis Menchov has his way, the reigning Vuelta a España champion won’t be back to defend his title.
Instead, Menchov is considering racing the Giro d’Italia ahead of a full-on assault of the Tour in July.
Rather than save something for the Vuelta like he has the past few seasons, which resulted in victory last year and in 2005 following the disqualification of Roberto Heras for EPO, the reserved Russian is mulling a Giro start to better hone his Tour form.
Menchov has yet to finalize his 2008 schedule with Rabobank brass, but the Tour remains Menchov’s major piece of unfinished business.
Despite showing some early Tour promise after winning the best young rider in 2003 and taking sixth overall in 2006 along with a stage victory in the Pyrénées, Menchov has yet to fulfill his potential of becoming the first Russian to win the Tour.
Menchov angrily left the Tour last year following the fiasco surrounding ex-Rabobank teammate Michael Rasmussen, who was kicked out while leading the race with only four days left to Paris.
The 29-year-old then motored through the time-trial heavy 2007 Vuelta to secure outright victory. He was already hinting last year that a return to the late-season Spanish tour might not be on the books.
“In the past I’ve done well in the Vuelta because I seemed to hit my best form too late for the Tour,” Menchov told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “The race I want to win, of course, is the Tour. I need to focus completely on that. Perhaps other goals won’t be as important.”
Last year, few expected Rasmussen to do so well in the overall GC as Menchov was supposed to be Rabo’s main rider. Rasmussen flew through the Alps and into the yellow jersey, while Menchov struggled in the early mountain stages and then was forced to give up his own chances when Rasmussen took the lead into the Pyrénées.
When the growing storm about Rasmussen’s whereabouts before the start of the race finally forced the Dane out of the race, Menchov was so angry at wasting all his effort to help the ungrateful Rasmussen that he was the only Rabobank rider to quit the race despite just a few relatively easy flat stages to ride into Paris.
The Vuelta has proven a winning salve for Menchov, who speaks fluent Spanish and lives near Pamplona, but the lure of the Tour could prove too tempting.
Wevelgem declaws Kemmelberg
Ghent-Wevelgem will keep the fearsome Kemmelberg descent in this year’s edition, but race organizers are promising changes to make the course safer for riders in the midweek classic.
Last year, dozens of riders, including American Tyler Farrar and Frenchman Jimmy Casper, were seriously injured in a pair of high-speed falls on the treacherous cobble-stoned descent.
This year’s 69th edition, set for April 9, will see the peloton tackle the Kemmelberg from the opposite direction, race director Hans de Clerq said.
“To eliminate the Kemmelberg was never an option. Ghent-Wevelgem is the Kemmelberg,” De Clerq said. “The descent will be longer and not as steep. There will also be a turn at 110 degrees to the right which will require riders to slow down to 20kph.”
The course will also be rerouted away from the flat coastland and include passages through Torhout, Ichtegtem, Koekelare and Klerken to toughen-up the “sprinter’s classic” sandwiched between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Valencia tour in danger
It seems that yet another early season Spanish stage race is in danger of disappearing. A string of Spanish races, including the Tour of Aragon, Setmana Catalana and Luis Puig, have collapsed for lack of funding the past two years.
The Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana – scheduled for February 26-March 1 along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast – could collapse this year for lack of funding.
According to a report in the “Las Provincias” newspaper, race organizers are seeing less interest from the regional government that underwrites most of the race’s operating budget. Several of the co-sponsors are still on board, but the regional Valencia government is holding back on its funding promises.
The February stage race has long been a favorite warm-up race for riders heading into the spring classics and Giro d’Italia.
Spanish racing has suffered following the decision in 2006 by Spain’s national television to pull the plug on much of cycling coverage following a string of damaging doping scandals and declining interest among Spanish fans.