By Andrew Hood
Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will bein León this weekend to officially kick off the 2004 Vuelta a España,which begins Saturday with a 27.7km team time trial.
Teams are expected to begin arriving in the northern Spanish city byWednesday as many want to get a good look at the rolling time trial course.Stage favorites include Phonak, led by Olympic time trial champion TylerHamilton, Team CSC, Liberty Seguros and T-Mobile.
Spanish riders top the list of favorites for the overall title (seestart list below), but there’s a growing number of foreign riders who couldspoil the fiesta for national riders. Hamilton, Alexandre Vinokourov andCadel Evans (T-Mobile), Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola), Giro d’Italiachampion Damiano Cunego and Danilo Di Luca (Saeco), Floyd Landis (U.S.Postal Service), Denis Menchov (Illes Balears) and Jorg Jaksche (Team CSC)are just a few of the top names looking to challenge the Spanish armada.
Most of the Spanish riders, however, will be keen to make up for a disappointingTour de France. Defending champion Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros), HaimarZubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo), Oscar Sevilla(Phonak) and Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) will be among the big nameslooking to make up for a disappointing July while Joseba Beloki (SaunierDuval), José Antonio Pecharromán (Quick Step) and AlejandroValverde (CV-Kelme) will be each anxious to prove they can battle for threeweeks.
After Saturday’s team time trial, 21-stage race pushes east across northcentral Spain, with relatively flat stages into Burgos, Soria, ZaragozaMorella and Castellón tailored for the likes of Oscar Freire (Rabobank),Max Van Heeswijk (U.S. Postal Service) and Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo).
Things get interesting with the flat 40.1km time trial at a Ford factoryin stage 8, the longest of the Vuelta’s four time trials, and the firstof seven summit finishes with the Alto de Aitana in stage 9. Stage 12 seesanother summit finish at Calar Alto and stage 15 will be decisive witha climbing time trial to the ski station at Sierra Nevada high above Granada.
The suffering continues after the second of two rest days with anothersummit finish to La Covatilla in stage 17, with two hilly transition stagesleading to the final weekend climax. Stage 19 ends with the final summitfinish atop the Puerto de Navacerrada in the mountains north of Madridwhile the Vuelta will likely be decided once again with a final-day timetrial, this time a flat 28.2km course that covers much of the same terrainriders will see in the 2005 world championships.
Check in throughout the Vuelta for Live daily coverage and race reports from Andrew Hood and Charles Pelkey
Start list – Vuelta a España
Cruz, Zabriskie secure Vuelta spots
Strong rides at the Tour of Holland last week earned spots in the Vueltaa España for Tony Cruz and David Zabriskie on the U.S. Postal Serviceline-up. Neither were part of preliminary start lists, but solid performanceshelped ease the way into the Spanish race.Team manager Johan Bruyneel said he was so impressed by both ridershe said he couldn’t leave them off the team’s nine-man roster for the season’sfinal grand tour, which starts Saturday with a team time trial in Leónin northern Spain.“I chose Cruz over (Daniel) Rincon, making Daniel our first reserve,”Bruyneel said in a team release. “At first, I thought Rincon would be goodfor the team and its effort in the hills, but then at the Tour of HollandI saw Antonio was doing a really good job for Max (Van Heeswijk) in thesprints, and Max will be our biggest card to play for stage wins. Too bad for Rincon, it was a tough decision to make and I had initiallytold him he would be part of the team but seeing what happened in Hollandchanged my mind.”Like Cruz, Zabriskie surprised Bruyneel at the five-day Holland tour,thus earning his position on the Vuelta team, the team reported.“Zabriskie’s performance in Holland really impressed me, especiallywith his effort in the time trial,” said Bruyneel. “The result was a lotmore impressive if you knew that on the second stage he was pulling with(teammate) Stijn (Devolder) for 160 kilometers. Then in the morningstage before the afternoon time trial stage, Dave was pulling for 80 ofthe 88kms. Then to do a strong time trial, that was impressive. I think he is back to the level we expected him to be and hopefully hecan now go on and have a strong Vuelta.”The “Posties” will be led by sprinter Max van Heeswijk, who has won11 internationally ranked races this season — the same as teammate andsix time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. The team will includeAmerican Floyd Landis and Spaniard Manuel Beltran as its leaders for thegeneral classification along with Michael Barry of Canada, Cruz and Zabriskie,Benoit Joachim of Luxembourg, Russian Gennady Mikhaylov and Colombian VictorHugo Peña.A consistent performer throughout the season, van Heeswijk recentlywon two stages and the points classification at the Tour of Holland. It was the third time this year van Heeswijk won two stages of a stagerace after winning a pair of stages at the Ruta del Sol in February andthe Tour of Murcia in March. The Dutchman has also won stages at the FourDays of Dunkerque, the Tour of Belgium and the Tour of Catalunya.In the overall, Postal will count on veteran Beltran and former mountainbiker Landis. At the Tour de France last month, Landis placed an impressive23rd overall, including a fourth place finish in the final time trial inBesancon. At last year’s Vuelta, Landis finished 76th overall insupport of former teammate and race winner Roberto Heras.Beltran suffered through an injury riddled Tour, finishing 46th. Last year, the Spanish climbing ace joined Postal Service midway throughthe season and finished in the top 15 at the Tour de France for the secondtime in his career before placing sixth at the Vuelta – his third careertop 10 finish at this home tour. In 1999, Beltran finished seventh whilein 2002 he placed ninth.“This year will be very different because we have no guarantee thatwe will have a guy on the podium or somebody very close,” Bruyneel said. “We will definitely look after those guys but we have some other ridersgoing for stages…so the guys going for the overall are going to haveto wait until the first mountain stages to see where they are. It is completelydifferent – everyone has a big opportunity to go for it this year.”That means riders have an open door to try something and Bruyneel saidhe’s expecting to see big things from Michael Barry. A strong Vuelta couldpush the Canadian closer to a spot on the team’s Tour de France selection.“I think Michael has improved a lot again this year and he is gettingcloser and closer to a spot on the Tour (de France) team,” Bruyneel said.“I expect him to do a good Tour of Spain and get more experience in hislegs during a three week stage race. I hope he can do three weekson a good level so I can consider him for next year’s Tour de France.”
Garzelli wants Vuelta podium
Stefano Garzelli — stung by disappointment in the 2004 Giro d’Italia– is hoping for a strong Vuelta a España to salvage his season.The former Giro champion says he wants nothing less than the final podium.
“After the Giro, I have finalized my preparation for the Vuelta,” Garzellitold the Italian wire service ANSA. “I want a strong result in the Vueltato secure a position on the national team for the world championships.”
Many of the top Italians are using the Vuelta as a three-week trainingcamp to get ready for the road worlds, being held in Verona for the secondtime in five years. Garzelli said he’s like to win a stage and try to aimfor the final podium if he can.
He’ll be joined by Pavel Tonkov, the Russian émigré wholives in the suburbs north of Madrid. The rest of the team includes ItaliansRoberto Sgambelluri, Dario Andriotto, Mauro Gerosa, Mark Milesi, MauroZanotti and Swiss riders Patrick Calcagni and Steve Zampieri.
Problems for Euskaltel with Pro Tour license
Euskaltel-Euskadi is facing roadblocks to become part of cycling’ssuper league for the 2005 season and might not be among the proposed 18teams to race in the ProTour next year.
According to a report in the Diario Vasco, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s problemsdon’t originate with money or sponsorship – the team is assured to continuethrough at least 2006 – but rather the question of doping.
According to the report, team officials are scheduled to meet with UCImembers Tuesday in Switzerland to discuss such problems as Gorka González,who tested high for hematocrit levels and was not allowed to start the2004 Tour.
Thirteen teams are already approved as part of the new format and anotherfive teams — Saeco, Fassa Bortolo, Liquigas, Omega Pharma and BouyguesTelecom – are expected to get the nod to round out the selection.
Euskaltel-Euskadi officials will ask the UCI to expand the licensesto 20 teams, allowing the Basque lineup a chance to make the grade. Underthe current framework, race organizers such as the Tour de France willstill be able to select four wild card teams. If the UCI expands the ProTourlist to 20, that would cut the wildcard selection down to just two teams,something unappealing for race organizers who keen to include nationalteams in their respective national tours.
Contracts, contracts, contracts, retirements and one guy on unemploymentIn transfer news, Pietro Caucchioli is poised to sign with Crédit Agricole for the 2005 season, leaving behind Alessio-Bianchi which has an uncertain future for next year.Meanwhile Crédit Agricole’s Eric Leblacher is expected to sign a contract extension with the Roger Legeay-led team.Tom Steels, a former Tour de France stage-winner, signed a three-year contract with the new Belgian super-team Omega-Pharma. After two years with the Landbouwkrediet-Colnago team, the 33-year-old sprinter wants to return to the Tour to try to win another stage.The French team FDJeux.com announced seven new riders for its 2005 roster: Lilian Jegou (Credit Agricole), Ludovic Auger (Auber 93), Christophe Detilloux (Lotto), Ian Mc Leod (HSBC), Jussi Veikkanen (VC Roubaix), Cyrille Monnerais (Jean Floc’h) and Remy Di Gregorio (VC La Pomme).Jean-Cyril Robin, the veteran French rider who once headlined U.S. Postal Service, announced Sunday’s GP Ouest France would be his last as a professional. He’ll continue working with FDJeux.com as a sport director.Joan Llaneras, recently crowned silver medalist in the Olympic points race, announced he’d retire after the 2007 track world championships scheduled in his hometown of Palma de Mallorca.Franck Vandenbroucke, the troubled Belgian star, is reportedly not welcome back with Fassa Bortolo for the 2005 season.