By Andrew Hood
With ONCE firmly in control with only five days of racing left, U.S. Postal Service is readjusting its target for the Vuelta a España.
While the team vows to keep fighting, sport director Johan Bruyneel is realistic when he admits the 3:09 gap between Roberto Heras and race leader Isidro Nozal might be too much to overcome.
“After surviving the stage to Sierra Nevada, Nozal has nearly won the Vuelta,” Bruyneel told reporters following Tuesday’s 16th stage. “Unless something unexpected happens, our objective now is second place.”
Heras attacked in the final steep switchbacks up the 30km Sierra Nevada to gap Nozal but simply ran out of asphalt. The 2000 Vuelta champion managed to wrest 53 seconds away from Nozal and he inched within six seconds over second-place Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONCE).
“Every day we get closer to Madrid it gets better for (ONCE),” Heras said. “The team has worked well and this is key for Nozal. It’s a lot of time to make up, but we’re going to keep fighting all the way to Madrid. It will be difficult for us if ONCE keeps things under control and when they have a rider like (Marcos) Serrano at their disposal.”
There will be few chances in Wednesday’s 188.4km 17th stage that features a Cat. 2 climb 12km from the finish, but Heras still has two stages to attack. Friday’s 164km 19th stage hits the Cat. 1 Alto de Navacerrada before the final 23km downhill to the finish line in Collado Villalba while Saturday’s 20th stage is a 11.2 climbing time trial to Alto de Abantos.
Nozal smells victory
After surviving La Pandera and Sierra Nevada in the race leader’s golden jersey, Isidro Nozal (ONCE) knows he’s closer to overall victory in the Vuelta a España. Nozal endured attacks by Roberto Heras (U.S. Postal Service) in the two climbing stages, handling Tuesday’s Sierra Nevada stage better than Sunday’s La Pandera climb.
“The victory is closer and I’ve learned from my error on La Pandera when I put too much into the climb when I thought I still had the strength. I don’t know if I’ll win in Madrid, but I’ve certainly learned from this experience,” Nozal told reporters after Tuesday’s stage.
ONCE covered attacks by Heras early in the 30km Sierra Nevada climb and rode in control when the Postal Service rider attacked with 6km to go on the final steep sections.
“I never had a bad moment (Tuesday) and I was better than I was on La Pandera. When Roberto attacked, we were able to bring him back. Igor (Gonzalez de Galdeano) responded well and I had Marcos (Serrano) with me until the end. Later, we thought it was better to let Roberto go because it’s better to lose 1 minute than lose the Vuelta.”
Museeuw won’t race worlds
Johan Museeuw (Quick Step) – recently questioned by Belgian authorities as part of an ongoing investigation into illegal distribution of human growth hormones – won’t start October’s road world championships.
The decision was taken after an overnight meeting Tuesday between the 1996 world champion and Belgian national coach Jose de Cauwer. His Quick Step team announced the decision Wednesday morning.
“Johan is very affected by what’s happening and when I saw him on at the GP de Wallonie (last Wednesday), I knew it would be difficult for him to make the team,” De Cauwer told the Belgian press.
Museeuw is among other several Belgian riders who’ve been questioned by Belgian authorities investigating charges of illegal distribution of banned doping products, including human growth hormones. Museeuw was interrogated by Belgian police Sept. 11, but was released without charges.
Despite no evidence yet of Museeuw’s involvement in the case, the cloud of doubt has plagued the popular Belgian rider known by his fans as the “Lion of Flanders.” Museeuw, who turns 38 next month, has dominated the spring classics the past decade, winning Paris-Roubaix three times (1996, 2000 and 2002) and Tour of Flanders three times (1003, 1995 and 1998).
Pantani denies he’s retiring
Italian star Marco Pantani is once again denying reports he’s retiring from cycling. Several reports hit the Italian papers Tuesday quoting Pantani saying he felt “like an ex-cyclist.”
On Wednesday, Pantani told the Italian news agency ANSA that he’s not retiring anytime soon despite being as much as 15 kilos overweight.
“I simply confided to a friend my feelings. I haven’t made any decision,” Pantani said. “The day I decide to quit cycling I will announce it to all the media.”
But in an interview published Tuesday in the “Voce di Rimini” newspaper, Pantani said he feels “all the effects of an ex(-cyclist). Is this my definitive departure from cycling? Probably yes. I’m tired of the scene and the motivation to train has left me long ago.”
Pantani said in the interview he hasn’t been training recently and weighs as much as 15 kilos over his prime racing weight. The “Pirate,” winner of the Giro-Tour double in 1998, was treated this summer for mild depression and has struggled to regain his winning formula since the 2000 season.
World hour record attempt on hold
Dutch rider Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel will put her attempt to break the world hour record on hold until Oct. 1 or 3 while repairs are made to Mexico City’s velodrome.
Zijlaard-Van Moorsel was expected to tackle the world hour record Tuesday, but track conditions weren’t optimum for a run at the mark set by Jeannie Longo (45.094 km) on the same track in 2000. Zijlaard-Van Moorsel’s attempt in September last year fell short (43.475 km) on the indoor track at Manchester, England.
Spanish worlds team takes shape
The Spanish worlds team is taking shape, with two-time world champion Oscar Freire once again leading the team for Hamilton. Here are the pre-selected riders and 12 riders will eventually be chosen to represent Spain: Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Oscar Sevilla and Alejandro Valverde (Kelme), Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Isidro Nozal, Marco Serrano and Angel Vicioso (ONCE), Francisco Mancebo, Aitor and Unai Osa (iBanesto.com), Luis Perez and Inigo Cuesta (Cofidis), Manuel Beltran (U.S. Postal), Oscar Pereiro (Phonak) and Gorka Gonzalez (Euskaltel).