By Andrew Hood
The final major tour of the 2002 season gets underway Saturday in Valencia, Spain. The Vuelta a España features shorter, livelier stages than the Giro or Tour, but remains a hotly contested battle nonetheless.
This year’s 3144-km (1949-mile), 21-stage race features three time trials and four very difficult climbing stages. The climber that can defend in the races against the clock will likely come out on top.
The 2002 Vuelta features eight flats stages, 10 stages with medium to difficult mountains, including four summit finishes which will likely decide the race. There’s no opening prologue. Instead, the Spanish tour opens with a 30-km team time trial. There’s a 50-km individual time trial at stage 10 and the race concludes as it did last year with a 45-km final individual time trial in downtown Madrid.
The summit finishes will be the battleground for the overall title. The climbs come early, with summit finishes in Andalucia, with stage 5 at Sierra Nevada and stage 6 at La Pandera. The infamous Angliru climb is back, this year coming at stage 15 on Sept. 22. The climb is among the steepest in Europe and features ramps as steep as 19 percent.Gilberto Simoni won there the last time it was in the Vuelta in 2000. The final climbing stage comes to the ski station at La Covatilla in stage 18 on Sept. 26.
The route starts in Valencia and dips southwest along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, heading north into the Sierra Nevada mountains in the heart of Andalucia. After two mountain stages, the peloton hits the Costa del Sol for two flats stages before a transfer to Cordoba and the first of two individual time trials.
Another transfer brings the race north for the second half of the race, with flat stages heading north through Burgos, Santander and Gijon along Spain’s northern “Green Coast.” The climb to Angliru looms in Stage. 15 as the route heads south through Leon, Salamanca and Bejar, Roberto Heras‘s hometown.
Following the final difficult climb to La Covatilla, the course heads east toward Madrid for the finale at the Bernabeu soccer stadium, where the Vuelta will celebrate the centennial of the Real Madrid soccer team, one of Europe’s top clubs.
The Vuelta remains the top race of the year behind the Tour de France for the Spanish riders. ONCE’s Joseba Beloki, fresh off his second overall at the 2002 Tour, is the heavy favorite. Beloki, who got sick last year while leading the race and didn’t finish, will have lots of pressure to finally deliver a big win after three consecutive podium finishes at the Tour.
Hot on wheel will be defending champion Angel Casero (Coast), looking to save his injury-riddled season, and Oscar Sevilla (Kelme), who dropped out of the Tour after finishing second overall in last year’s Vuelta. Sevilla’s teammate Santiago Botero will also be battling for the podium. U.S. Postal’s Heras, the 2000 champion, will be looking to avenge his disappointing fourth-place finish last year when he rode much of the Vuelta injured.
Italians will figure heavily in the Vuelta as well, with Mario Cipollini (Acqua & Sapone) making his comeback after “retiring” in July as part of his preparations for the 2002 road worlds in October. Fassa Bortolo’s Francesco Casagrande and Saeco’s Simoni will be looking for redemption in the Vuelta after both were ejected from the Giro. Casagrande for driving a Colombian rider into the fences and Simoni for since-cleared doping charges.
The Vuelta is one of the most exciting races on the calendar. Be sure to check VeloNews.com for daily reports and updates.
Tour d’Avenir kicks off today
Considered the little brother of the Tour de France, the 39th Tour d’Avenir kicks off today in one of the most important races for young riders in the peloton. Each year, the Avenir delivers a new crop of young riders under 25 with bright futures.
“It’s a beautiful course,” said Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour winner who helps organize the race. “It’s not as hard as previous years, but riders will be nonetheless fighting it out. The mountain stages will reveal complete riders, half rollers, half climbers.”
The peloton includes 20 teams with six riders each. Among the big names to come out of the race include such champions as Greg Lemond, Laurent Fignon and Miguel Indurain. More recently, American riders such as Kevin Livingston and Floyd Landis have shone at the race. Last year’s winner, Denis Menchov of iBanesto.com, won’t be at the start line in Saint Gregoire.
Today: Saint Grégoire – Saint Grégoire, 9 km (ITT)
Sept. 6: Saint-Grégoire to Bonchamp Lés Laval, 193km
Sept. 7: Bonchamp Lés Laval to Montlouis sur Loire, 200 km
Sept. 8: Montlouis sur Loire to Valencay, 147 km
Sept. 9: Vatan to Saint Armand Montrond, 148 km
Sept. 10: Saint Amand Montrond to Guéret, 147,5 km
Sept. 11: Guéret to Superbesse (Puy-de-Dome), 180 km
Sept. 12: Besse to La Chaise Dieu, 144 km
Sept. 13: Chomelix to Saint Flour, 156 km
Sept. 14: Saint Flour to Saint Flour, 138,5 km
Spain: Euskatel, Kelme, ONCE;
Belgium: Landbouwkrediet, Marlux, Vlaanderen;
France: BigMat, Bonjour, fdjeux.com, Jean Delatour, Crédit Agricole, Oktos;
Russia: Russian national team;
Czech Republic: Czech national team;
Norway: Norwegian national team.
Bölts signs one-year deal
Veteran German racer Udo Bölts signed a one-year deal with the Gerolsteiner team, the German wires reported Wednesday. Bölts 36, rode 11 Tours de France with Telekom but was forced to leave the team when Telekom didn’t offer a contract for the 2003 season. Bölts won the Dauphine Libere in 1997 and helped Bjarne Riis win the overall Tour title in 1996 and then Jan Ullrich in 1997.
The wires reported that Bölts was forced to take a pay-cut to sign with Gerolsteiner, a Division I team that still has not earned a bid to race in the Tour de France. “It was obvious that I would have to accept a lot less money. But my priority was to carry on competing,” said the three-time German champion.
Telekom offers Ullrich deal
Telekom has reportedly offered troubled 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich a contract extension. Ullrich, who is serving a racing ban until March after he tested positive for amphetamines, is not being paid by his Telekom team during his suspension. Ullrich is currently under contract through the 2003 season and the deal on the table is for one more year beyond that.
“The ball is in the court of Ullrich and his representative, Wolfgang Strohband, and now we are waiting for them to respond,” said Olaf Ludwig, Telekom team spokesman. The deal is reportedly worth less than Ullrich is currently making, estimated to be close to $2 million a year.
“The offer has new numbers,” Ludwig told the German wires without releasing details. Ullrich has been reportedly linked with a transfer to CSC-Tiscali to rejoin former teammate Bjarne Riis, who now manages the Danish team. Riis has been busy signing big-name talent to replace retiring star Laurent Jalabert, penning deals with Andrea Tafi. Meanwhile, Telekom has signed deals with rising star Cadel Evans and 2002 Giro d’Italia star Paolo Savoldelli.Bonjour greets new sponsor
The financially strapped Bonjour team has ensured its survival in theprofessional peloton for the next three years after striking a deal withthe third biggest bakery in France.Brioches La Boulanger, a bakery chain established in 1985, willbe the team’s new sponsors as of next season.The team’s official name has yet to be decided, along with the colorand design of the new team jersey.Former French champion Didier Rous will lead the team which will havethe benefit of an increased budget of around 4.5 million euros ($4.3 million).The team is still expected to trim its roster as part of cost-cutting efforts.”Unfortunately, we will only be able to maintain 17 or 18 (professionalriders),” said team manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau, a four-time winner ofthe Grand Prix du Midi-Libre.