By Andrew Hood
There was no mistaking Erik Zabel was first across the line in Monday’s opening stage of the 40th Setmana Catalana.
Zabel easily won his second race of the 2003 season just two days after finishing sixth in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, where the confused Telekom captain thought he had finished third.
At Milan-San Remo, Zabel admitted he didn’t realize eventual winner Paolo Bettini and two others were ahead on the lead bunch. When he came across sixth, he made his way for the podium thinking he had finished third.
There was no confusion in Monday’s 147km stage into Lloret de Mar along Spain’s Costa Brava. It was an easy and clear victory for Zabel, who slipped to second behind Paolo Bettini in the new UCI rankings released Monday.
Just like he did last year, Zabel wins the opening stage and takes the overall lead. Several riders from smaller Division II teams tried attacking in the closing kilometers, including the “Wild Boar of Bierzo” Cesar Garcia Calvo of the Labarca 2 squad.
The five-day Setmana Catalana is the second race of the year for four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who finished safely in the lead group. Armstrong expressed his worries about the war in Iraq to the Spanish daily El Periodico.
“I do have fears because of being an American, I’m not going to deny it,” said Armstrong, who repeated his apprehension of climbing up narrow roads lined with fans under little or no supervision. “For example, on Thursday I’ll be climbing up to Pal and there are certain to be people on the roads. The people will be close to me and they could have contact with me,” he said. “That’s one of the differences between my sport and others like football or Formula One. People are in contact with the cyclists but not footballers or F1 drivers. … People must make a clear distinction between sport and politics. I’d like it if cycling fans could make that distinction.”
Armstrong was active at the front of the main bunch on the long climb up the Category 1 Sant Grau about 40km from the finish. Armstrong led the charge down the other side, better ahead and out of trouble. Viatcheslav Ekimov led the Posties across the line in eighth-place while Roberto Heras didn’t take his planned start after feeling feverish overnight.
The Setmana Catalana continues Tuesday with the 158km second stage from Lloret de Mar to Empuriabrava featuring two Category 1 climbs, the final summit is just 25km from the finish line.
Stage 1 and overall standings, Setmana Catalana
1. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom, 147km in 3:25:14 (42.9 kph)
2. Alexandre Usov (Blr), Phonak, same time
3. Peter Wrolich (Aut), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
4. Gonzalo Bayarri (Sp), Phonak, s.t.
5. Nacor Burgos (Sp), Relax-Fuenlabrada
6. Danilo Hondo (G), Telekom
7. Addy Engles (Ned), Rabobank, s.t.
8. Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus), USPS, s.t.
9. Beat Zberg (Swi), Rabobank
10. Inigo Landaluze (Sp), Euskaltel, s.t.