|Led by defending champion Angel Casero, Team Coast is hungry for some good results in this year's Vuelta a Espaņa. After a disappointing season in 2001, the German squad began the 2002 season on a tear. Alex Zuelle, their designated man for the Tour de France, showed his return to form through his overall victory at the Volta a la Comunitat Valencia in March, his two stage wins and 2nd on GC at the Tour de Romandie in early May, and his convincing victory in the Tour de Suisse in June. Yet despite their domination, Team Coast was not given an invitation to race the big one in July. Their controversial exclusion from the Tour de France, which came as they were 10th in the UCI Division I team rankings, came as a major blow to the team (and also cast a shadow over the Tour de France itself). Fortunately, Team Coast had signed 2001 Vuelta champ Casero (whose Festina team disbanded) and thereby earned an automatic invitation to Valencia in September.
Casero has had a difficult season, struggling with knee injuries that have kept him out of racing for most of the season. However, Casero says that he is prepared to defend his Vuelta title against the likes of Heras, Simoni, Sevilla, and Salvodelli. Casero rode the extremely difficult Volta a Portugal to gain some form, and comes to the Vuelta with only a couple of weeks of racing in his legs this year. While some speculate that this may mean Casero is not ready, you only have to look at Tyler Hamilton's performance in this year's Giro to see how effective a rider can be in a Grand Tour with only a handful of racing days in his legs. Casero brings a tough and experienced squad with him to Spain, led by his super-lieutenant Fernando Escartin. Though getting a bit long in the tooth, Escartin had made a career of riding well in Grand Tours. His history in the Vuelta speaks for itself, as he placed 2nd in 1997, 2nd in 1998, 7th in 2000, and 10th in 2001. He is a determined climber with an infamously awkward style, and he will undoubtedly sacrifice everything to bring his team leader to the front of the pack. Escartin will be joined by fellow Spanish climbing specialist Manuel Beltran. The team leader for Mapei in last year's Vuelta, Beltran rode well in the mountains and finished in 19th on GC. The strength and experience of these two climbers should serve Casero well in a Vuelta that will be dominated by the mountains.
The emphasis on the mountains is also reflected by the choice of David Plaza, Jaime Hernandez, and Luis Perez for Coast's Vuelta squad. These three men rode by Casero's side on Festina last year, and helped shepherd their leader to the top step of the podium in the Vuelta. When you add Aitor Garmendia to the picture, Coast's agenda becomes clear: they are bringing six Spanish riders with climbing ability to aid Casero to the tops of such brutal climbs as the Sierra Nevada and the Angliru. Coast rounds out their team with two fast men on the flats: veteran Italian sprinter Fabrizio Guidi and young German talent Daniel Becke. Guidi is a cagey rider who has racked up dozens of wins in his career. He is coming off of a bad year due to the Mercury fiasco, but he is fully capable of winning a stage if he is given the opportunity by the team. Becke was an Olympian on the track for Germany in 2000, and should provide a lot of gas for his team when the road isn't going vertical.
Coast is sending a solid team to the line to help Casero defend his Gold Jersey. However, the big questions surround Casero and not his teammates. Has Casero been able to recover fully from his knee injury? If so, has he gotten enough road time to regain the form he had last year? At his best, can Casero even hang with men like Heras and Simoni on the climbs? These two men crushed Casero two years ago on the climb to Angliru. This year, Casero has decided to ride with three rings up front for the Angliru stage so that he can maintain a good rhythm and limit any potential losses to these purest of climbers. If this strategy is successful, and Casero can bring himself into the final time trial within a minute or so of his rivals, he should once again be able to smoke them on the last day and take the Gold Jersey for the second straight year.
Team Coast for the Vuelta
1. Angel Casero (Spa) Age: 30, UCI Points: 585
2. Daniel Becke (Ger) Age: 24, UCI Points: 33
3. Manuel Beltran (Spa) Age: 31, UCI Points: 166
4. Fernando Escartin (Spa) Age: 34, UCI Points: 1,000
5. Aitor Garmendia (Spa) Age: 34, UCI Points: 573
6. Fabrizio Guidi (Ita) Age: 30, UCI Points: 127
7. Jaime Hernandez (Spa) Age: 30, UCI Points: 15
8. Luis Perez (Spa) Age: 28, UCI Points: 299
9. David Plaza (Spa) Age: 32, UCI Points: 532
For the Vuelta's complete final start list, click here