By Andrew Hood
Alejandro Valverde, the Spanish sensation who’s getting cartloads of hype back home, admits he’s starting to feel the pressure still four months away from the start of the Tour de France.
Valverde, who nipped Lance Armstrong in a climbing stage up Courchevel before abandoning his Tour debut last year, said he hopes he can live up to expectations among Spanish fans and media.
“I am starting to note the pressure, and to tell the truth, I am a little scared, but I am working so that everything turns out okay.” Valverde told the Spanish sports daily Marca.
Valverde has been unofficially christened Spain’s next great Tour hope. Following the problems of once-hyped giant-killer Iban Mayo and a legion of Tour contenders before him, Valverde – for better or worse – is now the central focus of Tour expectations south of the Pyrenees.
Crumbling to the pressure of trying to live up to the legacy of five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain has been burdensome for a generation of Spanish riders and now Valverde is feeling the heat.
Is Valverde worried? He admits “a little.”
“I keep thinking that this year that everything’s not over and even if I fail for whatever reason, I still have a lot of Tours ahead of me,” he said. “Sure, I have five years in professional cycling, but I am still only 25 and some of the big champions didn’t win the Tour until they were 27.”
Valverde – racing this week in the Tour of Murcia – said his favorites for victory are Ivan Basso (CSC) and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile).
Valenciana, Agritubel earn Tour bids
Comunidad Valenciana and Agritubel secured two “wild-card” slots to earn starts in the 2006 Tour de France, race officials announced Thursday.
The two-team selection comes as a surprise as the Tour, in recent years at least, has capped its starting field to 21 teams.
With the additional 20 ProTour teams, some 198 riders will officially take the start July 1 in Strasbourg for the season’s most important stage race.
Agritubel is a new French continental team and seemed sure to have a lock on a Tour start, especially after the inclusion of last year’s lone wild-card team, Ag2r, into the 20-team ProTour league.
Led by former Tour stage-winner and Spanish climbing ace Juan Miguel Mercado, Agritubel assures a strong presence of five French teams for the “grande boucle.”
The selection of Comunidad Valenciana comes as somewhat of a surprise and becomes the big winner in the “wild-card” sweepstakes. After getting a nod to start the Vuelta a España earlier this week, it becomes the only continental team to be selected to start two grand tours.
Comunidad Valenciana – formerly known as Kelme – hasn’t raced the Tour since 2003, and fell out of grace with Tour organizers following doping revelations by former team rider Jesus Manzano, who revealed in a series of paid interview with a Spanish sports daily last year of extensive doping practices within the team.
The team enjoyed a successful 2005 season, highlighted by a sixth-place finish in the Vuelta a España by rising star Ruben Plaza.
With the Tour announcement, all three grand tours have finalized their line-ups for this season’s grand tours. All three have elected two continental teams to join the 20-team ProTour lineup.
Earlier this week, the Giro d’Italia selected Selle Italia and Panaria, while the Vuelta chose Comunidad Valenciana and Relax.
Relax, Comunidad Vuelta-bound
Comunidad Valenciana and Relax both punched their tickets for the 2006 Vuelta a España late Wednesday after race organizers released its two wild-card picks for this year’s edition.
The Vuelta, set for an Aug. 26 departure in Malaga and its traditional finish Sept. 17 in Madrid, will feature six Spanish teams, with Illes Balears, Liberty Seguros, Saunier Duval and Euskaltel joining the two continental teams.
Vuelta officials complained about rules that forced their hand to name their teams´roster so far ahead of race departure, insisting that the season had just begun to play out.
In all, 22 teams will start the Vuelta, with Spanish team Kaiku looking like the odd-man out, which said in a statement its exclusion was “lamentable and scandalous.”
Kaiku´s Marcos Serrano was not allowed to take Wednesday’s start of the Vuelta a Murcia after in-apt blood tests, perhaps a final blow that sent the Vuelta invitation into the arms of the much-relieved Relax.
Relax, meanwhile, said its invitation was justified based on its 16 years in the peloton, as opposed to Kaiku´s two.
Kaiku, however, has been more productive on the bike, snagging five wins last season to Relax’s zero. So far this season, Kaiku boasted of 22 top-10 places while Relax has only managed two.
Teams for 2006 Vuelta a España
Illes Balears (Sp)
Liberty Seguros (Sp)
Saunier Duval (Sp)
Comunidad Valenciana (Sp)
Credit Agricole (F)
Francaise de Jeux (F)
Quick Step-Innergetic (B)
Discovery Channel (USA)
No Vino for Paris-Nice
Two-time Paris-Nice champion Alexandre Vinokourov won’t be racing in this year’s “Race to the Sun.”
Competing this week in the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain, the Liberty Seguros captain will skip Paris-Nice and race again on Spanish roads later in March during the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, team officials confirmed.
Instead, Liberty will head to Paris-Nice with up-and-coming riders Alberto Contador, Andrey Kashechkin and Luis León Sánchez.
Liberty Seguros for Paris-Nice
Luis León Sánchez
José Antonio Redondo
Brochard doubtful for TA
Laurent Brochard will likely miss the upcoming Tirreno-Adriatico with a herniated disk, his Bouygues Telecom team reported. If he cannot make the start, the former world champion will be replaced by Franck Renier.
Bouygues Telecom for Paris-Nice
Yoann Le Boulanger
Stef ClementBouygues Telecom for Tirreno-Adriatico