By Andrew Hood
Only four days stand between Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) and his third Vuelta a España victory in five years. The quiet Spanish rider all but eliminated arch-rival Alejandro Valverde (Valenciana-Kelme) after taking more than two minutes in Wednesday’s summit finish and only has to worry about climbing sensation Santi Pérez (Phonak) going into Saturday’s penultimate stage.
“We made a big stride toward winning the Vuelta but there are still some difficult stages to come,” Heras said. “We’ll still take it day by day.”
Liberty Seguros is clearly the strongest team in the race, setting a brutal pace up the lower flanks of Wednesday’s climb to La Covatilla with Darius Baranowski and Marcos Serrano putting the screws on the bunch.
Only Pérez was able to follow – then drop Heras, who struggled near the summit after putting in a heavy effort to drop Valverde. Pérez has finished second or won the last four mountain stages and has Saturday’s summit finish to Navacerrada to look forward to.
“We still have to worry about Pérez,” Heras cautioned. “He’s climbing very well now and we can’t discount him as a rival.”
With a lead of 1:13 over Pérez and 2:15 and 2:16, respectively, on Valverde and Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears), Heras can breathe easier. Valverde is the best time trialist of the three rivals, but he’s not likely strong enough to erase such time differences going into Sunday’s final flat time trial in Madrid.
Heras will still want to pad his lead, just in case. In 2002, Heras lost the Vuelta in a final-day time trial showdown against Aitor Gonzalez. Angel Casero won the 2001 Vuelta in similar fashion against Oscar Sevilla.
Valverde, meanwhile, admitted his chances for overall victory are all but finished.
“I wasn’t able to respond when Heras attacked,” Valverde said. “All I can do now is congratulate Roberto and Santi and think about finishing on the podium. That’s still an important result in this Vuelta.”
González won’t start
Aitor González (Fassa Bortolo) won’t take the start of Thursday’s 18th stage at the Vuelta a España, complaining of a stomach virus. The 2002 Vuelta champion struggled in Wednesday’s stage, losing contact with the main bunch over the Cat. 1 Puerto de Honduras midway through the stage and then finishing well off the back on the final climb.
The abandon is a final disappointment for the flamboyant Spanish rider who’s struggled since leaving the Spanish Kelme team after his breakthrough 2002 season and joining Fassa Bortolo.
González won a stage in this year’s Tour de France, but never figured among the favorites despite promises of “squashing Lance Armstrong like a toad in the road” that he made in 2002.
Fassa Bortolo staff have already said they have no interest in re-signing the Spanish all-rounder and reports in Spain point González toward joining Euskaltel-Euskadi next year.
Bartoli to ride on
Italian veteran Michele Bartoli has postponed retirement by one more year and will ride with Team CSC for 2005. Bartoli has one year left on his two-year contract with Team CSC, but hinted at retirement earlier this season.
Bartoli was disappointed to be left off the Italian world championships team yet again. Bartoli has been overlooked in recent years despite showing strong form late in the season and winning back to back Giro di Lombardia titles.
“It’s too bad because I am in great form right now,” Bartoli told the Italian wires. “I was going to retire, but I don’t want to end like this. I will race one more season.”
Bartoli, 34, won two World Cup titles but never won the world title despite being the heavy favorite. He said he hopes to race the Giro d’Italia next year. Virenque to ride off into sunset?
Leave it up to Richard Virenque to make it a show. The seven-time winner of the best climber at the Tour de France has called a press conference Friday for a major announcement.
Most expect the controversial Virenque to announce his retirement after 14 years in the pro ranks. Virenque, who will turn 35 in November, still hasn’t signed with Quick Step for the coming season and could follow fellow veteran Laurent Dufaux into the retirement home.
Virenque has been one of cycling’s most controversial figures, playing a central role in the Festina Affaire that revealed the depth of organized doping within the ranks of professional cycling. Despite declarations of his innocence, he finally admitted to doping and served a racing ban before returning to the Tour in 2002.
Final three for Spain
Spanish national coach Paco Antequera has selected the final three riders to round out Spain’s 13-man team for the world championships. Pedro Horrillo (Quick Step), Eladio Jiménez (Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme) and Santi Pérez (Phonak) were selected to complete the Spanish, at the expense of Vuelta leader Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros).
The other riders for the Spanish team are defending world champion Igor Astarloa (Lampre), two-time world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme), Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears), Chechu Rubiera (US Postal), Luis Pérez (Cofidis), Marcos Serrano (Liberty Seguros), José Iván Gutiérrez (Illes Balears) and Isidro Nozal (Liberty Seguros). Nozal and Gutiérrez will compete in the time trial.
New route for Lombardia
Organizers of the Giro di Lombardia have announced important course changes for the 2004 edition. Instead of starting in Como and ending in Bergamo, as it has in recent years, the 264-kilometer route will start in nearby Switzerland instead and finish in Como.
Back in the course is the San Fermo della Battaglia climb, which will come in the final 10km of the course. The Ghisallo climb will remain, so the new additions will make for an even tougher race this year.
The race is sure to be decisive this year in what will be the final World Cup title as the series is set to disappear with the inclusion of the ProTour in 2005.