Following the comparative disappointments of 2001 Roberto Heras bounced back with a return to the form that had enabled the 28 year old rider from Béjar to triumph in the Vuelta 2000. His victory on the seventeenth of June 2002 in the Volta Catalunya was his first podium place since that Vuelta. So how does Heras assess his season?
His victory in Catalunya signalled the end of the barren run - a fact that Heras acknowledges:
“Without a doubt this year has been far better than 2001. In spite of the fact that my main objective could not be achieved I am still happy with the season, because at least I have regained the sort of form I had two seasons ago, and that is the sort of form I always want to have."
Heras, from Salamanca, and now a resident of Barcelona (although I am sure Bruyneel does not have to worry about Heras becoming one of Barcelona’s famous “cats”) is particularly happy with his climbing this season. Indeed, many fans world wide, would consider his win on the awesome Angliru on stage 15 of the Vuelta to be the most exciting day in any Tour of the year.
"I am very happy to find my climbing a little bit better this year. That is a positive sign for the future. As far as the time trials, I have really only seriously raced in two all season, both in the Vuelta Espana.
I was very satisfied with the first one, in Cordova, (Heras finished second 40’’ down on Aitor Gonzalez but ahead of specialists like Millar). The second one was a disaster. In Madrid, at no time did I go well and I never felt as if I could win. Never the less on balance I am happy with my time trialing.”
After a difficult season like 2001 Heras acknowledges that 2002 was a greater challenge:
"I confronted the year from two points of view. Firstly, that to stop the loss of form of the previous year and secondly to motivate myself to regain my form of two tears ago. But my main goal was to regain my best form.
Heras acknowledges that lessons could be learnt from his poor 2001 season:
"When things go well, everything is easy, but when things go badly you have to learn to be deal with it. It was a very important year, as much in the positive as in the negative. The negative was I never managed to be one hundred percent, on the positive side, previously I had only ever known success, I learnt a lesson that season. It was an experience that I had not previously had."
This year Heras, once again had the same goals - the Tour and the Vuelta:
"This year I focused on the Tour and the Vuelta, not forgetting that there was another race I wanted to do well in, the Volta to Catalunya, which was, in addition, good preparation for the Tour, where I was conscious that I had to help Lance Armstrong. As for the Vuelta, it was my full intention and hope to win it."
Kelme versus Heras
The Vuelta Ciclista a Catalunya turned out to be a triumph of the US Postal in general and Roberto Heras. The leader's jersey was never out of Postal hands from Boonen wearing it after the first stage team time trial, with Hincapie as caretaker after stage two with Heras wearing it from stage three (The Sant Climent de Taull to El Aalto de Boí Taull (2.030 m) climb Time Trial of 10,8 km) until the end of the race.
"I had reached a point in my preparation for the Tour where I was lacking something to reach maximum form. The Volta was not only good preparation but, in the end, a good victory."
"The key factor s were the two time trials - the team one on the first stage and the individual mountain time trial on stage three. The fact I did not win a stage is not important. Garmendia won the climb time trial but it did not worry me, the time difference was small, I had finished second and had taken the race lead. In addition, I managed to win the overall race".
Heras completed the first week of the Tour without difficulty and was in great shape when the mountains arrived. The first day in the mountains was stage 11, Pau to La Mongie 158 km with a mountain top finish taking in the climbs of the Col d'Aubisque (1709 m): 16,7 km climb at 7,1%, the Col de Soulor (1474 m): 2,3 km climb at 5,2% and finishing on La Mongie (1715 m): 12,9 km climb at 6,8%.
"On La Mongie I felt in really good shape. I had spent the first week of the Tour without any complications and the truth is that I arrived in very good shape for the mountains. In spite of what a lot of people have said, it's nonsense to suggest that Lance Armstrong had difficulty holding my wheel that day, not only could he follow my pace - he won the stage!"
The second day in the Pyrenees and another mountain top finish on the Plateau de Beille and Heras found that he could not go for the stage victory because of the proximity of Joseba Beloki:
"The main problem in winning on the second day in the Pyrenees was the fact that Joseba was so close to me. I daren’t risk inadvertently helping Beloki while Armstrong lead the race. It was too dangerous to race against Beloki so near the end of the stage".
Heras - all that glitters.
On the question of a rider of his quality and talent ride for another, and follow the orders of the American , Heras is absolutely firm on this question:
"It is important to have a clear understanding and have no vain dreams. When I decided to go to the Postal team I knew that this would happen. The important thing in these situations is to be very sure of what you want."
"The most important thing was to consolidate the leadership of Lance. Sure I would have liked a stage win in the Pyrenees but there were other priorities that day. Later, health problems me stopped me thinking about a stage victory. The fact is, when you ride a Tour for the US Postal Team you cannot expect to be a “free agent,” it is important to be very professional, to remain focused and remember exactly what you have to do".
Having finished the Tour, with mission one accomplished, Armstrong once again on the top podium step and Heras finishing in an excellent 9th place. Heras then took a slight break in order to marry Ana Gálvez. With the Vuelta looming his only competitive appearance was in the Vuelta Ciclista a Burgos, where Heras worked for Rubiera.
Meanwhile the Vuelta remained the big objective.
"I went to the Vuelta with the intention of winning the race. I was focused and determined and in Valencia I started the race with good legs... we still finished second in the team time trial which was excellent for morale. Sierra Nevada, (Stage 6) I did not go so well, I felt very well on the Pandera de Jaén and on the Angliru I was very strong again. I was also very happy with my time trial in Cordova".
Postal in Vuelta
Without a doubt, the biggest rival to Heras was the Kelme team. Sevilla was expected to be a major rival, but as for Aitor González?
"I knew that he could have a good Vuelta, but I admit that I didn’t think he could win it. I knew he was a strong tour rider and could last until the final week and maybe achieve a podium place, he had demonstrated that in the Giro. When it came down to the final time trial I knew it would be difficult to keep my lead. I had hoped Aitor would not be quite so strong in the mountains.
The critical moment of the race was on the Angliru while Sevilla suffered behind, Aitor took up the challenge of Roberto:
"I did not think about anything specific. It was a very hard stage and in such circumstances a little reason is lost, Everything about that stage was larger than life, because of the circumstances; perhaps Aitor was not absolutely conscious of what he did. He immediately apologized, but the stage did demonstrate that he was in excellent form.
"In Madrid never I had the feeling that I could win the Vuelta. I could not dig deep. In Madrid I watched myself lose the race, it was a strange sensation. At that moment I felt a little impotent".
As 2002 closes so riders close to Heras, such as Escartin retire...
"It is the law of life. Older riders will leave to be replaced by new blood. Roberto Heras does not know how long he will ride, it depends on good health and willpower. "For now, I am focused on 2003, and I hope to have a good year. The main thing in this sport is to have a dream..."
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