I have never been to Spain. I don't speak Spanish. I don't know much about
the country, yet, I really enjoy the Spanish races, and the forthcoming Vuelta a
Espana is no exception. Like last year, I expect the race to be the best of the
three week tours. The racing is usually close and exciting, and, like in the
past few years, new and old faces have re/established their careers.
Take a certain Mr. Lance Armstrong. Before the Tour of Spain in 1998, the
last time I had seen the American in a pro race was back in the Tour de France,
in 1996. He was now a changed man. After trying, and eventually finding to team
to ride for, Lance was ready to take on the challengers. He had grown up. He
wanted to win again. He was there to prove a point to the teams that turned him
down when he was looking for a team. In the two years since I had last seen
Lance, I had grown up as well. I, too, wanted to be the best. I wanted to prove
a point. For me, this wasn't on a bike, it was at school.
That year, Lance surprised everyone with his fourth place finish. Everyone
was amazed. Everyone was trying to find out how a rider, whose record in Grand
Tours wasn't great before he had cancer, had finished in such a high place in
the Tour of Spain. They didn't know, they said he was doping. Armstrong has yet
to fail a blood or urine test.
Skip forward to the next year. After missing the Tour de France in 1999
through injury, Jan Ullrich raced in the Vuelta. Once 1998's winner, Abraham
Olano, had retired, Jan took the lead, which he kept to the finish in Madrid.
For his critics that wrote him off after the 1998 Tour de France, this was a big
message. Ullrich was back. He too wanted to win again.
I now look back at last year's race. The two riders that made the biggest
point in the Vuelta were David Millar and Levi Leipheimer. Being British, my
view on Millar is obviously biased, so I won't bother writing it. However, David
had a dreadful TdF in 2001. Over-prepared and exhausted, Millar went into the
Prologue at Dunkirk knowing that he had to win. The tight, twisty roads of the
circuit were filled with Brits that had come across the channel to watch "their"
man win. Unfortunately, we know what happened on Saturday, 7th July 2001.
Pushing right to the limit, he crashed on the final corner. His chances of
taking the first Maillot Jaune had gone. Just over a week into the race, on the
stage up to L'Alpe D Heuz, Millar (lying last in the GC) retired. (Incidentally,
the stage was won by Lance Armstrong.)
At the start of the Vuelta, the world saw a new David Millar. In the month
and a half since his agony in France, he had competed in few events. He was
making sure that he was in top condition for the Tour of Spain. In the Prologue,
sporting a Giro helmet, the same model that Armstrong wears, Millar set the
fastest time. He was the leader of the race. He kept the jersey for a handful of
days, until he was delayed by a crash in the final kilometer of Stage 4. (He
almost lost the Yellow Jersey in the TdF in 2000 in similar circumstances.) Two
days later, he was involved in a breakaway of several riders. Not far from the
finish, Santiago Botero - who took over the race lead when Millar lost it -
broke away on a climb. Millar was the only rider who could match him, and the
two stayed away until the finish. David won the stage, proving to people that he
can also win road stages along with Time Trials. The stage win is described by
Millar as "the best thing I've done on a bike." He had proved his point.
Before la Vuelta last year, Levi Leipheimer was not internationally known. A
few weeks before the Tour of Spain, he finished 6th in the Tour of Burgos. Once
la Vuelta had finished in Madrid, his name was on most people's lips. He had
finished his first three week tour in third place, less than 3 minutes behind
the winner, Angel Casero. Levi did not win a stage, but he rode consistently
well in the Time Trials and Mountain stages. He finished second on stages 7
(mountain stage) and 21 (the final time trial, where he set a better time than
teammate Roberto Heras, thus promoting him to third overall), third on stage 1
and fourth on stage 8. If there was any proof needed that the then 27 year old
rider could match the best in Grand Tours, this was it. I had heard many stories
before this race that, unless Leipheimer rode well in the Tour of Spain, he
would be released by US Postal. Now, they wanted to keep him. Leipheimer's
decision to move to the Dutch Rabobank team for 2002, was, in my eyes, a good
move. If he had stayed at Postal, he would have found himself as a domestique
for Lance in the TdF, and would have possibly been the "second team leader" in
the forthcoming Tour to Roberto Heras (former winner, on home ground.)
This year, he found himself as Team leader in the biggest race of them all -
le Tour. Perhaps disappointed by his ride in the tight and twisty Luxembourg
prologue, Leipheimer rode just like he did in the 2001 Tour of Spain. He didn't
win a stage (he came 6th on the hard stage to La Plagne) but his riding was
consistent and fluent. A reasonable ride in the final time trial (where has that
happened before ??) placed Levi into eighth place overall, which,
unsurprisingly, was the position in which he finished the race, just over 17
minutes behind the race winner.
And, so, I finally end up at the start of this year's race. Depending on the
fitness of these riders, I think Gilberto Simoni and Francesco Casagrande could
end up in a battle royal. Both riders have something to prove. Simoni's positive
drug tests in the Giro meant that his Saeco team were eliminated from starting
the Tour de France, which did not please his teammate, manager and sponsors.
Casagrande was also eliminated from the race after a "fight" with another rider.
But before thinking the race will be between two Italians, don't forget the
Spanish riders, who, on home soil, will be desperate to have a good tour. Joseba
Beloki showed in the race last year that he is a rider capable of winning the
event (before he had to retire), young Oscar Sevilla, who had a bad Tour de
France, will want to go one step further than last year's second place, the
rider that beat him - Angel Casero- will want to show Jean Marie Leblanc and the
Societie du Tour de France that his Coast team are worthy of a ride in the Grand
Boucle. There's Santiago Botero, more than capable of causing an upset (read:
TdF, stage 9, where he won the TT ahead of Armstrong et al), Igor Gonzalez de
Galdeano, who wore the Maillot Jaune in the TdF after his ONCE team won the TTT-
the Vuelta starts with its first TTT for several years, so he must rate his
chances of taking the Golden Jersey, Claus Moller, who won a stage and finished
8th in last year's edition and Paolo Savoldelli, winner of this year. I wouldn't
be surprised if a new, young rider, shows what he can do in three week tours.
After the favourites, there's the other riders who might feel that they have
to rid themselves of any doubters. Mario Cipollini (back from retirement- he was
never going to give up at this moment of time, he wants the World title) will
want to win a stage or two, Eric Zabel, who didn't win the Green Jersey in the
Tour this year, will want to prove any possible doubters - hopefully there
aren't any- that he can still sprint consistently. There's all the riders that
might be released from their contracts in the winter and they need to show
possible employees that they are worth taking on next year. This is certainly
the case at the Mapei and Big Mat-Auber teams, whose sponsors are withdrawing at
the end of the season. Riders at teams who didn't do too well in the Tour de
France (Eukatel, AG2R etc.) will also need to prove a point.
It should be an exciting race.
By the way, Lance Armstrong went on to win four consecutive Tour de France
races, and is going for a record breaking fifth win next year. Me, I've done
reasonably well at school...