The story on Spain's Kelme Team is essentially that of two men: Oscar Sevilla, last year's best young rider in the Tour de France, who was beaten by seconds in the final time trial of last year's Vuelta by Angel Casero; and Sanitago Botero, the battler from Columbia who beat Lance Armstrong in the first time trial of this year's tour, and then came back from a terrible crack on Mont Ventoux to win a few days later on Les Deux Alpes.
The baby-faced Sevilla impressed more than just his teenage girl fans in last year's tour with his doggedness in sticking to Ullrich's wheel until the final climbs. Sevilla received numerous proposals from several eager suitors after his impressive Tour and Vuelta last year, including US Postal; but opted to stay with Kelme only to face months of non-payment of his wages this year which brought him within days of leaving the team in search of more stable pastures. Kelme's last minute deal with the community of Valenica to salvage the team brought Sevilla back into the stable, but may have effected his morale and training leading into the tour. Sevilla was forced into an early abandonment (despite high hopes for him) when he succumbed to stomach cramps this year in which stress may have played a role. Even so, strong performances in the Coppa Agostoni and Clasica de los Puertos in late August say that he is on his way back to top form. Despite rumors that he is again talking to other teams, Sevilla says that he is feeling better both physically and mentally, and that he has no intention of breaking his contract with Kelme.
A steady all-day climber, Sevilla performs well and consistently over the duration of the three week stage race, and will be strongly motivated to better his performance in last year's Vuelta. He should do well with ten stages featuring medium or high mountains; but his comparatively weaker time trial skills could be his downfall. Whatever the outcome, Sevilla is ready with a new blond look that he jokes "matches the gold Vuelta leader's jersey."
Should Sevilla fail in the time trials, Kelme has another weapon in Santiago Botero. A powerful climber, Botero dedicated himself last year to being a force against the clock as well, and in doing so, sacrificed his climber's legs a bit. This year, Botero has struggled to balance those two powers, and his performance in this year's tour suggests that he may have done it, with victories in the first individual time trial against otherwise undisputed champ, Lance Armstrong; and at dramatic, battling win at Les Deux Alpes on stage 15. Botero's time trial victory in the tour was no fluke, he beat the Texan with the golden hams by 42 whopping seconds in the Dauphiné Libéré.
Botero has had a strong year, but is sometimes plagued by inconsistency. His wheezing ascent of Mont Ventoux in the Dauphiné Libéré, where he lost 16 minutes to Armstrong was duplicated in the tour with a spectacular crack on the Ventoux in stage 13 where he lost over thirteen minutes to the leaders of the race, effectively wiping out any chance he had of a podium finish. Two days later, he came back spectacularly, but if he is to win in Spain, he won't be able to afford losses like those.
Kelme's top guns will have good support from Aitor Gonzalez, who won the longest stage in this year's Giro d'Italia, and capped of his Italian stint with a victory in the final time trial in the Giro as well. Strong against the clock and a serviceable all-rounder, he should make good on the flats and in the mountains, and provide some extra engine power for the team time trial. Jose Gutierrez, who won the final stage of the Dauphiné Libéré is a strong all day man who has been known to finish fast. Antonio Tauler is good against the clock and will add power to the team time trial effort, and will be useful all around. Juan Jose de Los Angeles, Jesus Manzano and Alejandro Valverde round out the squad.
Kelme announced yesterday that they are losing an intended team member in Angel Vicioso to a bad case of sciatica. Vicioso has a kicker in the sprint and does well over moderate climbs. The team will feel his loss, but he will be replaced by one of Kelme's alternates: Carlos Garcia, José J.Gomez or José A.Vidal.
As a final wrench, Kelme has announced that although the team has overcome the financial difficulties that nearly ended an over 20 year run on the peloton for Kelme, it has recently been announced that the team will make further cut backs next year, and will reduce the number of riders from 29 to 22 for 2003. 17 of Kelme's current roster already have contracts in place, including team leaders Santiago Botero and Oscar Sevilla. Riders who are to be released by the team will be informed before the start of the Vuelta a Espana on September 7th.
Despite a year of upheaval and uncertainty, Kelme is a strong team who will be buoyed by recent successes, but also motivated by recent disappointments. For some riders, there may be the need to impress for a new ride next year. Led by Director Sportif Vincent Belda, Kelme has a good roster of class riders, plenty of motivation, and should shine in the Vuelta.
Kelme-Costa Blanca for the Vuelta
121. Oscar Sevilla
122. Santiago Botero
123. Juan Jose De Los Angeles
124. Aitor Gonzalez
125. Jose Gutierrez
126. Jesus Manzano
127. Antonio Tauler
128. Alejandro Valverde