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Vuelta a España: Heras on the line

The last major three-week stage race of the 2001 season kicks off Saturday under the intense Iberian sky of this bustling college town in western Spain. The 21-stage, 2986-km (1851-mile) Vuelta a España is a climber’s paradise, featuring seven summit finishes on some of the steepest roads race organizers could find this side of the Pyrenees. There’s no Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich, but some of the top names in cycling are here to duke it out in the 56th running of the Vuelta. Among the 21 teams will be two troubled riders looking to regain past glory, Mercatone Uno’s Marco Pantani and

Postal’s Spanish star favored to repeat Vuelta title

By Andrew Hood

Vuelta a España: Heras on the line

Photo:

The last major three-week stage race of the 2001 season kicks off Saturday under the intense Iberian sky of this bustling college town in western Spain.

The 21-stage, 2986-km (1851-mile) Vuelta a España is a climber’s paradise, featuring seven summit finishes on some of the steepest roads race organizers could find this side of the Pyrenees.

There’s no Lance Armstrong or Jan Ullrich, but some of the top names in cycling are here to duke it out in the 56th running of the Vuelta. Among the 21 teams will be two troubled riders looking to regain past glory, Mercatone Uno’s Marco Pantani and Domo’s Richard Virenque.

U.S. Postal Service’s Roberto Heras returns as defending champion in what promises to be an epic duel between the Posties and a charged-up ONCE team stacked with firepower.

“Roberto is motivated to defend his title and the team is ready as well. We have Chechu and Pena from the Tour team but the rest of the guys are fresh,” Postal director Johann Bruyneel said Friday.

ONCE comes with Joseba Beloki, fresh off his second-straight third-place in the 2001 Tour de France. Co-leading the team will be 1998 overall Vuelta champion Abraham Olano and Igor Galdeano.

“If the team is strong, I think at least one of us should finish on the final podium,” said Beloki. “Of course, Roberto is the favorite because he is the defending champion and he will be strong. I think our team is strong and we are very motivated.”

Just as in this year’s Tour, many are already questioning the strength of the U.S. Postal Service team, especially against ONCE. The Posties signed Chann McRae from troubled Mercury to help Heras in the mountains. The team is trying to win a rare double in grand tour victories in one season with two different racers.

“I’m excited about racing again,” said McRae, who only received his U.S. Postal Service racing bike from Trek last week. “Everyone on the team will be working hard to help Roberto.”

Many are also questioning the leadership of ONCE. Spanish newspapers are already full of polemica on whether or not there will be in-fighting between Beloki, Galdeano and Olano.

MARCA, Spain’s largest sports daily, gave Heras and Beloki five-star status as pre-race favorites. Others lurking in the background should the favorites take a misstep are Fernando Escartin and Alex Zülle of Team Coast, Ivan Gotti of Alessio, Giro d’Italia champion Gilberto Simoni, Kelme’s Oscar Sevilla and Santiago Botero, Festina’s Angel Casero, Banesto’s Unai Osa and Danilo Di Luca of Cantina Tollo.

Euskatel-Euskadi could be the wildcard team. David Extebarria will lead a full squadron of climbers, including Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia and Tour stage-winner Roberto Laiseka.

Three Americans are starting among the field of 189 riders, including Antonio Cruz, Levi Leipheimer and McRae, all from U.S. Postal Service.

Saturday’s opening stage is a 12km (7.4-mile) time trial through the streets of Salamanca, one of Spain’s most beautiful cities currently in the throes of its annual fiestas. Cofidis’ David Millar will be looking to score the “maillot oro,” or the race leader’s golden jersey, that he missed in this year’s Tour.

There are four individual time trial stages in this year’s Vuelta, including a decisive 17-km (10.5-mile) climbing time trial in the 12th stage up Arcalis in Andorra. The Vuelta ends with a 38-km (23.5-mile) individual time trial through the streets of Madrid on Sept. 30.

But it’s the mountains that take centerstage in this year’s Vuelta. Seven summit finishes will decide the winner, including the first-ever climb up the Alto de Aitana in the 15th stage, a punishing climb that many are calling the Mont Ventoux of the Vuelta.

Strong crosswinds always play a role in the Vuelta, splitting the peloton into echelons that can spoil the chances of any favorite not in strong position at the front of the bunch.

After Saturday’s start, the Vuelta heads north across Spain’s meseta to Leon before dropping to sea level at Gijon along the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday. Wednesday’s fifth stage climbs to Lagos de Covadonga in the rugged Picos de Europa and will separate the challengers from the pretenders.

Casero, Beloki and Olano will likely shine in the seventh stage for the longest time trial of the race at 44 kms (27 miles). The race heads back straight up with a climb to the category-one Alto Cruz de la Demanda in the eighth stage.

Following the first of two rest days on Sept. 17, the race enters four-straight climbing stages in the Pyrenees. The course drops down to the Mediterranean coast before the climb up Alto de Aitana. Four transition stages carries the peloton back to the central meseta before the final climbing stage Sept. 29 for the category-one finish at Alto de Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid.

The shortened length of the Vuelta – 2986 kms compared to the 2001 Tour at 3454 kms – results in animated racing from the gun. It’s going to be shootout either way.

55th VUELTA A ESPAÑA

Sept. 8 Stage 1 – Salamanca TT – 13.4km
Sept. 9, Stage 2 – Salamanca-Valladolid – 147.2km
Sept. 10, Stage 3 – Valladolid-León – 140.5km
Sept. 11, Stage 4 – León-Gijón – 175km
Sept. 12, Stage 5 – Gijón-Lagos de Covadonga – 160.8km
Sept. 13, Stage 6 – Cangas de Onís-Torrelavega – 180.6km
Sept. 14, Stage 7 – Torrelavega TT – 44.2km
Sept. 15, Stage 8 – Reinosa-Alto Cruz de la Demanda – 195km
Sept. 16, Stage 9 – Logroño-Zaragoza – 179.2km
Sept. 17, Rest day
Sept. 18, Stage 10 – Sabadell-La Molina – 168.4km
Sept. 19, Stage 11 – Alp-Pal (Andorra) – 154.2km
Sept. 20, Stage 12 – Ordino-Arcalís TT – 17.1km
Sept. 21, Stage 13 – Andorra-Port Aventura – 206km
Sept. 22, Stage 14 – Tarragona-Vinerós – 170.5km
Sept. 23, Stage 15 – Valencia-Alto de Aitana – 207.2km
Sept. 24, Rest day
Sept. 25, Stage 16 – Alcoi-Murcia – 153.3
Sept. 26, Stage 17 – Murcia-Albacete – 159.5km
Sept. 27, Stage 18 – Albacete-Cuenca – 154.2km
Sept. 28, Stage 19 – Cuenca-Guadalajara – 168km
Sept. 29, Stage 20 – Guadalajara-Alto de Abantos – 176.3km
Sept. 30, Stage 21 – Madrid TT – 38km

Total distance: 2989km

The 21 teams and leaders
U.S. Postal Service (Heras, Rubiera)
Alessio (Gotti, Shefr)
iBanesto.com (Mancebo, Jiménez, Blanco)
Coast (Escartin, Zülle)
Cantina Tollo (Di Luca)
Cofidis (Cuesta, Atienza)
Domo-Farm Frites (Virenque)
Euskaltel-Euskadi (Laiseka, Mayo)
Festina (Casero)
Jazztel-Costa de Almeria (Kantana)
Kelme-Costa Blanca (Sevilla, Botero)
Lampre-Daikin (Simoni, Camenzind)
Mapei-Quick Step (Beltran, Freire)
Mercatone Uno (Pantani)
Milaneza-MSS (Jeker, Moller)
ONCE-Eroski (Igor Gonzales de Galdeano, Olano, Beloki)
Panaria-Fiordo (Figueras, Perez)
Rabobank (Beat Zberg)
Colchon Relax-Fuenlabrada (Flecha)
Saeco (Savoldelli)
Telekom (Zabel)