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Spanish riders fighting internal and external pressure for worlds

If a Spanish rider wins Sunday's men's road race, he will have overcome the race within his own team as much as the foreign competition

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — The Spanish armada sails into Italy for Sunday’s men’s elite world championship road race with more pressure than perhaps any team other than the hosts.

While the Italians must win, the loaded Spanish team should win, at least after looking at its stellar starting nine.

The Spanish squad is stacked with potential medalists, from four-time world championship medalist Alejandro Valverde to 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez to 2009 worlds bronze medalist Joaquim Rodríguez. And that’s not counting Alberto Contador, Luis León Sánchez, or Daniel Moreno.

Spain is Europe’s deepest squad for a climb-heavy course like Florence. With that much firepower, the only thing holding back the Spanish will be themselves.

“It’s a hard course, a lot of climbing,” Valverde told VeloNews. “We should have good chances. I feel good after the Vuelta, tired, but ready to race. Let’s see what we can do.”

“We” is the key word for a team known for its internal wrangling and struggles for leadership. With five world titles, Spain has the best worlds record since 1995, but most of that success came stacked up with three-time world champ Óscar Freire and Igor Astarloza, winner in 2003.

Freire’s third win in 2004 was Spain’s last world title, and the pressure is ratcheting up to follow that victory a full nine years later. Valverde, more than anyone, wants his stripes.

“I’ve been close before in the worlds, many times,” Valverde said. “Of course, I would love to win the world title. I think I am capable. I would be lying if I say I wouldn’t want to be on the top step.”

Yet Valverde’s most dangerous enemies might come from within.

At last year’s finish line atop the Cauberg, there was plenty of acrimony. Freire, racing his final worlds, claimed the team was not rallying around him as they had planned. Valverde wondered out loud what happened to Rodríguez, who was a non-factor on the final decisive charge up the Cauberg.

Some muttered that Valverde was racing his own race from the onset, but he countered that he salvaged the team’s performance by snagging bronze — though he forfeited a shot at the win, riding defensively when Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) attacked to victory.

Publicly, the Spanish team is always all smiles and pleasant banter, but behind the scenes, each man is ambitious, each wants to win.

Taking over the helm of the national team is Javier Minguez, who steps in at the request of new cycling Spanish federation president. Facing a 50-percent reduction in its backing from the Spanish government, Minguez isn’t even drawing a salary, something in sharp contrast to Italian national coach Paolo Bettini who is paid more than $100,000 per year.

Minguez said his job is to get out of the way, and devise a strategy so each rider knows his role. As Minguez sees it, the 272-kilometer course through Tuscany, which finishes with 10 laps of the difficult Florence circuit, is one for Valverde.

“Valverde is No. 1, with ‘Purito’ [Rodríguez] right there, because they know these type of races and it’s ideal for them,” Minguez said. “The others have to be in the race. It’s going to be complicated. It’s a long race, over narrow roads. The final 70 kilometers will make a big difference. That extra distance changes everything.”

Spain is sure to put some legs into early moves, with riders like Egoi Martínez and José Herrada designated to mark breakaways, and ride to protect the leaders.

The problem with Spain is that everyone wants to be the leader. Too many cooks in the kitchen can often spoil the cake. In sharp contrast to other nations, such as Belgium or Italy, which are rallying around one or two contenders, Spain has more leaders than workers.

Having options to cover every scenario can be a bonus, but also a curse. As Minguez said, the long distance of Sunday’s race will uncover those truly capable of winning the 80th elite men’s world title. Whether the victor will wear a red and black jersey will be as much a factor of the race within the Spanish team as the race outside it.