By Andrew Hood
Four American racers were poised to jump into contention for the overall title at the demanding Vuelta al Pais Vasco going into today’s challenging climbing stage to Lekunberri, won by Denis Menchov (Illes Balears).
Floyd Landis (U.S. Postal Service) and Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) started Thursday’s stage in the select group of 20 riders tied with the same time as leader Alejandro Valverde (Kelme).
Bobby Julich (CSC) and Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) sit just eight seconds out of the lead going into the climb-riddled stage, which features a long Category 1 climb that tops out just 3km from the finish.
when asked before the start about a quote from Phonak sport director Alvaro Pino, who said Hamilton was here just to spin his wheels, the New Englander replied: “Who said that? If there’s an opportunity to win, I’ll take it. Of course, the big picture is the Tour de France, but I came close to winning here last year, so we’ll see.” Hamilton finished just 12 seconds behind last year’s winner, Iban Mayo (Euskaltel).
Currently 21st at eight seconds back, Hamilton conceded that he wasn’t at his best early on. “I lost eight seconds the first day,” he said. “I had some stomach problems, but I’m feeling good now. Today is an important stage.”
All four Americans are strong time trialists, and if they can get through Thursday’s difficult climbing stage in strong position, each will have a chance going into Friday’s split stage, which concludes with an afternoon time trial.
Leipheimer said the Basque Country race is one of his early season’s top goals. Clearly riding with strong form following his stage victory at Setmana Catalana last month, Leipheimer sits 13th overall, tied with Valverde.
Julich is also racing with renewed motivation since joining Team CSC. Julich said he felt “good” before Thursday’s stage and even tried an attack late in Wednesday’s third stage running into Vitoria.
“The whole peloton was confused on where to go, but Bobby knew the way and just went through clean,” said Team CSC sport director Kim Andersen. “There was some head wind, so he was caught.”
The race lost another American following Wednesday’s stage. Tom Danielson (Fassa Bortolo) pulled out during the long, windy stage into Vitoria.
Either way, today is sure to be a long day in the saddle for the 140 remaining riders. Cold, wind and rain are forecast throughout the day and rain was already falling in the first hour of the race.
Beloki mulled retirement
Joseba Beloki has been an unwilling tourist during the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Still plagued by pain in his recovery from his horrendous crash in last year’s Tour de France, Beloki watched as the peloton rolled out of his hometown Vitoria for the start of the fourth stage Thursday.
“The truth is that I haven’t felt good since my crash,” Beloki said in an interview with El Mundo newspaper. “I’ve had a hard time on the bike since then.”
Beloki, who has been forced to abandon Critérium International and the race this week following pain and discomfort on the bike, said his comeback has been so frustrating that he has considered retiring.
“Two months ago I was at the point of breaking my contract. I didn’t want people to think I was cheating, earning a salary without doing anything,” he said. “I was sure if I couldn’t get back to the level that I had before, I would quit cycling.”
However, Beloki said he’s been inspired to continue by the support of his new team, Brioches La Boulangere, and the rabid Basque Country fans.
“The team and the fans have really supported me,” Beloki said. “The fans mean a lot, because behind the lights and the headlines, I’ve really suffered a lot.”