By Andrew Hood
More than 3000 people turned out in Béjar, Spain, to give Roberto Heras a hero’s welcome Tuesday after he returned to his hometown following his dramatic victory in the 58th Vuelta a España.
The city’s fathers are considering naming a city street after the two-time Vuelta champion. His mother, wife and daughter joined Heras as he toasted his fans from the city hall balcony. He dedicated his victory to his father, who died in May from cancer.
The U.S. Postal Service celebrated Heras’s victory with a team dinner at a popular restaurant in Madrid on Sunday night. Five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong called Postal Service sport director Johan Bruyneel to congratulate the team.
“I haven’t spoken to Lance directly, but he talked with Bruyneel and he congratulated us,” Heras said.
Heras’s comeback victory electrified the final week of the Vuelta, but it couldn’t help resuscitate languishing TV ratings. More than 43 million viewers watched the 21-stage race across Spain with an average daily audience of 2,085,000 per stage. Last year’s numbers were higher, when nearly 47 millions watched the race with an average daily audience of 3.2 million. Last year’s Angliru stage attracted a record 3.9 million viewers.
New sponsor for Banesto likely this week
Officials from the iBanesto.com team are holding their breath as they wait for final word from the Balearic Islands tourism board to take over the team’s sponsorship.
The Balearic Islands – a popular tourist destination in the Mediterranean Sea that includes Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera – is expected to announce as soon as this week the formal agreement to become the team’s new title sponsor.
“There are just a few points to finalize,” said Pepote Ballester, an official from the Balearic regional government. “The existing infrastructure of the team will allow the highest level of competition and a cycling team is a great vehicle to attract tourism from Europe to our islands.”
Negotiations began in July, according to a story in the Spanish daily AS, and the name of the team will likely be “Illes Balears,” as the Balearic Islands are called in the local language.
It’s good news for Spanish cycling, which faced the prospect of losing both Banesto and ONCE at the end of this season. Thirteen of the 20 riders on the iBanesto.com roster are under contract to continue next year if the deal is finalized. The team lost the services of its up-and-coming stars Juan Miguel Mercardo (to Quick Step) and Jose Antonio Flecha (to Fassa Bortolo).
The team will likely try to sign the major Mallorquine pros such as Toni Tauler and Toni Colom. There’s even been talk of trying to sign 1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich. There’s a large German ex-pat community on Mallorca and the islands attract millions of German tourists each year.
Vasseur likely to lead Frenchies
Following his big victory in Paris-Corrèze over the weekend, Cedric Vasseur (Cofidis) is likely to be the leader of the French team at the road world championships next month in Canada.
Vasseur, 33, said it would be difficult to go up against the favorites such as Paolo Bettini (Italy), George Hincapie (USA) or Michael Boogerd (Holland). Other strong French riders include 1997 world champion Laurent Brochard
French for the worlds (men’s road race)
Laurent Brochard and Andy Flickinger (AG2R), Sylvain Chavanel, Maryan Hary and Franck Renier (La Boulangère), David Moncoutié and Cédric Vasseur (Cofidis), Nicolas Fristch (fdjeux.com), Samuel Dumoulin and Patrice Halgand (Jean Delatour).
Last two places to be chosen from: Christophe Agnolutto (AG2R), Frédéric Bessy (Cofidis), Benoît Poilvet (Crédit Agricole), Sandy Casar, Mickaël Pichon and Jean-Cyril Robin (fdjeux.com), Laurent Lefèvre (Jean Delatour) and Christophe Rinero (MBK).
Aussie team for worlds
The Australians have announced their seven-man team with Michael Rogers as the leader for the men’s road race.
Autralian men’s road team
Allan Davis (ONCE), Scott Davis (Panaria), Benjamin Day (Carvalhelhos), Matt Hayman (Rabobank), Michael Rogers (Quick Step), Scott Sunderland (Fakta) and Matthew White (US Postal Service). Valverde ready for worlds
Rising star Alejandro Valverde (Kelme), fresh off his two stage wins and third overall at the Vuelta a España, said he’s motivated to perform well at the road world championships.
“I’m going to help Oscar Freire, but if he can’t do it, I’ll be there,” Valverde said during a reception with local officials from his hometown in Murcia. The 23-year-old won nine races this season, the most by any Spanish rider.
“I will try to be ready and have options to win. If I’m with the best at the world championships, this will have been a great season for me,” Valverde said. “Next year I will prepare for the Vuelta and in 2005, I will focus on the Tour de France.”
Sevilla, Cooke extend, Lombardi not to Fassa, Marzoli to Lampre
A week after extending Alejandro Valverde’s contract through 2007, Kelme officials have penned a deal that will keep star rider Oscar Sevilla with the team through next season. Sevilla’s contract is up at the end of this year and the team wanted to sign Sevilla for two years, but “El Niño” wanted just one year. The team plans to balance leadership between its two stars, giving the leadership role at the Tour to Sevilla and saving the Vuelta for Valverde.
Contrary to previous reports, Giovanni Lombardi (Domina Vacanze) won’t be heading to Fassa Bortolo next season. Instead, it looks like the Italian set-up man will be heading to the new team of Jose Miguel Echevarri, who’s poised to sign a new sponsorship deal with the Balearic Islands. Lombardi, who lives in Madrid, helped Mario Cipollini win Milan-San Remo and the world championships last season but has had many run-ins with the Lion King.
Ruggero Marzoli (Alessio), 27, has signed a contract to join Lampre for the 2004 season.
Portuguese rider Jose Azevedo (ONCE) will ride for Milaneza-MSS next year, the largest national team in Portugal. Azevedo had a strong 2002 Tour de France and will join Klaus Moller and Angel Edo on the Milaneza-MSS team. The team will be trying to shake off racing bans involving three of its riders to earn a bid to race next year’s Tour.
Baden Cooke, winner of the green points jersey at this year’s Tour de France, has signed a two-contract extension to stay with Fdjeux.com.
Gimondi turns 61
Felice Gimondi, winner of the 1965 Tour de France, turns 61 Tuesday.
Born in Sedrina, near Bergamo, on September 29, 1942, Gimondi scored 136 wins as a professional including his Tour win, the 1968, ’69 and ’76 Giri d’Italia, the 1968 Vuelta, the 1973 world road title and Paris-Roubaix in 1966. Gimondi retired from the sport in 1978 at the age of 36.