Will he or won't he? Won't he or will he? That man with the animal print pajamas has had the whole world guessing for months. We all knew he would be coming back from "retirement" to race again. That wasn't an issue. The real question was whether or not the Blond Bombshell would come out to play in Spain this September. With Magnificent Mario Cipollini's announcement today (see article here), that question has finally been answered, and the sprints in this year's Vuelta a Espaņa now look to be as good as any we've seen all year. Sure, the Aussie Sprinting Mafia will be absent (McEwen, O'Grady, Cooke, et. al.), but the grand old men of sprinting--Cipollini (Acqua e Sapone) and Erik Zabel (Team Telekom)--will be there. There will be a total of eight flat stages surrounding the ten deadly mountain stages this year. These eight days will see fireworks galore, as the talented sprinting corps will contain the fastest hams Spain has seen for a while.
The announcement of "Bellissima" Cipollini's presence at the startline in Valencia is actually good news for Telekom, who struggled to control the flat stages in this year's Tour de France. The breakaway specialists had their way more often than not, and the Telekom boys were only able to lead Zabel out to one stage victory. Cipollini's presence will mean more opportunities for Zabel to challenge in the sprints and capture the Points Jersey. Cipollini's wild zebra-men dominated the Giro d'Italia this year, taking out seven stage wins in the sprint finishes (six for Cipo and one for leadout man Giovanni Lombardi). They crushed almost every breakaway on the flats, and gave the sprinting men numerous chances to charge the line. With both the Sapones and the Telekoms riding herd on the breakaways in the Vuelta, it looks like slim pickings for the opportunists and a feast for the fast men...at least until Cipo packs it in to get prepared for Zolder. And if Cipo or Zabel should falter (or re-retire), their leadout men are more than capable of taking a win: Lombardi (Acqua e Sapone) has already won several races this year, and Gian Matteo Fagnini (Telekom) is always a threat in the sprints.
The Mapei-Quick Step squad also seems chosen with the sprint finishes in mind. Oscar Freire looks to be the main man for the Mapeis, and if his back has completely recovered from that bad crash in the Tour, he should give Cipo and Zabel fits. Old Cipo nemisis Ivan Quaranta (Index-Alexia) will be looking for some revenge in the Vuelta, as he rode miserably in the Giro due to a hand injury. If the profile has no bumps, Quaranta is the most dangerous man in the peloton when he is on form...he could sack the oldsters for a stage win or two. Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) gave Cipollini a serious challenge in the final couple of sprints of the Giro this year, and he will look to finally take a big stage win over the elder Italian on the road to Madrid.
There are also a few teams sending a pair of dynamite finishers who could figure in the bunch sprints. Lampre-Daikin will have both Jan Svorada and Zbigniew Spruch on hand. Svorada is the biggest threat: his palmares this year include a stage victory in the Tour of Belgium and two stage victories in the Settimana Ciclistica Lombarda, and he has won several stages of Grand Tours in the past. The Phonak team will bring the Giro Points Jersey runner-up Massimo Strazzer and German sprint specialist Sven Teutenberg to the Vuelta. Strazzer suffered with his form in the recent Ronde van Nederland, but Teutenberg looked sharp...if Strazzer recovers his form before the Vuelta, Phonak could pose a problem for Zabel in the race for the Points Jersey and to everyone else at the finish lines. Tacconi Sport will send the dangerous duo of Andrej Hauptman and Zoran Klemencic to Valencia. Though not top-shelf sprinters, this pair can pull off a surprise if the big teams falter with their leadouts.
Other sprinting threats include Angel Edo (Milaneza-MSS), who won two stages and the Points Jersey in the recent Volta a Portugal. Edo's climbing legs and punchy finish could make him a challenger to Zabel for the Points Jersey. Angel Vicioso (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Jeremy Hunt (BigMat-Auber '93), and Fabrizio Guidi (Team Coast) are all powerful riders with a solid sprint who could pull off an upset if given a chance. Climber Jose Maria Jimenez took two stage victories and snaked the Red and White Points Jersey from Zabel last year. With ten mountain stages, a climber could repeat that success this year and frustrate the sprinters. If no dominant climber emerges, then look for the sprinters to bash each other all the way to Madrid in search of stage wins and the Points Jersey.
Heading into September, it looks as though the flats in this year's Vuelta will be dominated by the teams of the sprinters. With such a number of quality sprint-hams in the field, there will be several teams that will like their chances for a stage victory from a bunch finish on any given flat stage. Last year, Zabel dominated the early sprints en route to three stage victories. He won't have it so easy this year. It should be a helluva lot of fun to watch.