By Andrew Hood
Luis León Sanchez, the surprise winner of last year’s Tour Down Under, will defend his title later this month as the third-year pro kick-starts the season for Liberty Seguros.
The tall and lean León Sanchez – whose physique reminds many observers of five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain – said he had planned to start his season at the Tour of Malaysia, but the team decided it was better to return to Australia after León Sanchez lost his brother in a tragic “quad” accident last year.
“Manolo Saiz and I thought it would be better to start my season as soon as possible,” he said. “I return to Australia with good memories of my first stage-race victory, even though I will be there as well for Allan Davis. The plan is identical to last year, to help Davis, and then the race will decide things.”
After Australia, León Sanchez will return to Europe and race in Paris-Nice, Setmana Catalana and Three Days of De Panne before a break ahead of Tour de France preparatory races at Alcobendas and the Tour of Cataluyna.
“I’ve trained fewer hours than last year, but with more intensity,” León Sanchez said. “I feel pretty good and I start the year at a good weight.”
At 22, he said he still hasn’t figured out if he’s a one-day rider or one better-suited for the longer stage races. He’s worked hard in the off-season to improve his climbing abilities and has set an important goal with Paris-Nice in early March.
“The plans that I’ve made with Manolo are to arrive in good form at Paris-Nice. It’s a race I like a lot and I’m especially motivated,” he said. “But you have to contend with the weather. Last year it was very cold and they cut some of the stages, so we’ll see.”
While Liberty Seguros will come with a stacked team, Alberto Contador – a winner of a stage last year and one of Spain’s most promising riders – won’t make his debut until Paris-Nice and instead focus on preparing for the Tour de France.
Liberty Seguros for Tour Down Under (January 17-22): Carlos Barredo, Koen de Kort, Eladio Sánchez, Luis León Sánchez, Iván Santos, José Joaquín Rojas, Allan Davis and Aaron Kemps. Sport director: Marino Lejarreta
Jeker back to Portuguese team
After two years racing with the Spanish team Saunier Duval, veteran Swiss rider Fabian Jeker is returning to a Portuguese team for 2006.
Jeker, who enjoyed some fine seasons with the Milaneza-Maia team before joining Saunier Duval for 2004-05, has signed a deal to join Carvalhelhos-Boavista. According to the Portuguese web page cyclolusitano.com, the team has also signed Australian Benjamin Day.
Veterans mark season debuts
French rider Laurent Brochard has decided to change his traditional season-opener, trading his favored l’Etoile de Bessèges and the Tour Méditerranéen for the Tour of Langkawi in early February. Brochard will lead the Bouygues Telecom team, which also includes Franck Bouyer, Walter Bénéteau and Giovanni Bernaudeau. … Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas-Bianchi) won’t make his season debut until Tirreno-Adriatico in early March. The 2005 ProTour champion will trek to Mexico for his annual training camp, riding at altitude for four weeks in February, before returning to Europe. Di Luca has declared the Giro d’Italia his top goal for the upcoming year. … Gilberto Simoni will make his season debut at the Tour of California in his new Saunier Duval-Prodir colors. Simoni is also putting his season hopes on winning another Giro crown.
McGee unsure about Commonwealth Games
Brad McGee has yet to decide whether he’ll compete in the Commonwealth Games in March in Melbourne, Australia. According to a report by AAP, McGee was scheduled to return to France this weekend to finalize his 2006 racing schedule with FDJeux team boss Marc Madiot.
“If we don’t have an answer by the time he returns to Europe, then Brad will sit down with Marc face-to-face and sort the matter out,” McGee’s manager Kerry Ruffels told AAP. “We know they have much bigger things to worry about at the moment.”
A number of Australia’s leading road cyclists have already announced that they will not be able to compete at the games, including Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers.