By John Wilcockson
When you feel the cold blast of the Mistral on your face in this final week of January or skid on the ice that formed overnight on the roads above the French Riviera, it doesn’t seem like a new European road season is about to get underway. But this coming Sunday, the day that cyclo-crossers will be battling for their world title in Brittany, 15 pro teams will line up for the first of five days of racing on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
“Mallorca is always hard,” said American Christian Vande Velde earlier this week at his Spanish base of Girona, prior to attending Tuesday’s media presentation of the Liberty Seguros squad in Madrid. “For some reason, the roads on Mallorca are slicker than regular roads. There’s one particular descent, which has a grooved pavement on the turns, where someone always comes down.”
Despite the dangers, Vande Velde said he was looking forward to racing in Mallorca. His transfer from U.S. Postal to the Spanish squad (sponsored under a five-year deal by the Iberian branch of Liberty Mutual) came together at the last minute, so he has yet to be measured for a new BH bike and will be racing on his old Postal team Trek in Mallorca.
“I haven’t a clue yet what my program will be,” added Vande Velde, who said that most of the issues will be settled at a training camp in Mallorca between the fifth race there (February 5) and the start of the Ruta del Sol on February 15. The Colorado resident hopes that he’ll mainly be working for team leader Roberto Heras, who has raced with Vande Velde for the past three years on Postal.
At the media presentation, Heras said that Vande Velde will be one of his trusted lieutenants at the Tour de France. “He has the experience and will bring us a lot,” Heras commented.
Vande Velde had one of his best races for Postal when he helped Heras take second place at the 2002 Vuelta a España. Now the two are on Liberty, which is the successor of the famous ONCE team directed by Manolo Saiz. Both the Vuelta and Tour are races that the team will be trying to win this year.
“If I told you that winning the Tour de France is not out objective, I would be a liar,” Saiz said. Another of the new sponsor’s ambitions, according to its American president Tom Ramey, is “to become the best team in the world.”
Besides having Heras as a candidate to win the Tour, Liberty also has 2003 Vuelta runner-up Isidro Nozal as its candidate to win the Spanish tour. And this time, instead of having Heras as the rival who defeated him, Nozal will have him on his side.
Saiz said he would also have liked to retain Joseba Beloki for his Tour campaign, instead of losing the Basque to the French formation, Brioches-La Boulangère. “I am sad that Beloki didn’t stay with us,” Saiz lamented. “When I greeted the riders during our get-together on Sunday, I missed him. But that’s how it goes. I have 19 magnificent riders in any case.”
Besides Heras, Nozal and Vande Velde, the Liberty team also includes the top Spaniards Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano and Angel Vicioso, Australian sprinter Alan Davis, Italy’s Giampaolo Caruso, and the Czech Jan Hruska.
While Saiz was introducing his new squad, which retains 12 men from last year’s ONCE-Eroski team, Beloki was wrapping up the Boulangère training camp in St, Raphaël, France. After riding with his new French teammates for a week, Beloki was asked to compare La Boulangère with his former squad. “It’s a good team, with some good racers,” he said, “but I think that ONCE was probably the best team in the world. When the Tour comes around though I think that my new people will all do their best.”
Boulangère team boss Jean-René Bernaudeau has no doubts that his men are ready for the big time. “You may not have heard of many of them,” said Bernaudeau, “but you’re going to hear a lot about them in the future.” The French directeur sportif is particularly proud of the young men who have come up through his amateur team U-Pays de Loire — riders like Sylvain and Sebastien Chavanel, Jérôme Pineau, Maryan Hary and Thomas Voeckler.
La Boulangère is not riding in Mallorca, so Beloki’s first race in his new uniform will be next Tuesday, at the Grand Prix de l’Ouverture, sponsored by the Marseillaise newspaper. It will be a symbolic start in France for the Spanish star, and shows that he is fully committed to making the right impression with his new sponsor. And his thoughtfulness won’t be forgotten when the Tour comes around in July.
Just as Beloki will be racing hard against his former team, so Heras will be challenging his former team leader, five-time champion Lance Armstrong. “We will give 100 percent to beat Lance,” said Heras on Tuesday. “We have a super team. It will be hard. He’s shown that he’s been unbeatable the past five years. And if some people still repeat that he showed signs of weakness last year, me, I prefer to point out that he won the last Tour without being at 100 percent. That says everything.”
It promises to be a great Tour … and a great season.