With the wild cards announced and the Tour only a week away, the favourites are lining up to take their chance at cracking Lance Armstrong and his hopes of a record-equalling fifth tour. One of those who should be on the Texan’s wheel if he cracks is Joseba Beloki Dorronso.
Beloki hit the big time in the new Millennium, winning a stage and the overall of the Vuelta a Asturias, as well as picking up the shards of Festina’s shattered image (alongside Christophe Moreau) with 3rd in the Tour de France, prompting instant comparisons with Miguel Indurain. The next year Beloki moved to the powerful Spanish squad ONCE, who had a void (or rather a huge chasm) after the departure of Laurent Jalabert. He won two stages and the overall in one of the Tour preparation races, the Tour of Catalunya and followed this up, with his new team, by again taking 3rd on the Tour podium, in the same order as the previous year behind Armstrong and Ullrich. Furthermore, in his native Vuelta a Espana he wore the Gold Jersey for several stages before faltering badly on Stage 11.
However it became clearer as his Tour threat became more prominent that he was winning less and less. In 2002, apart from the 5th stage of the Euskal Bizikleta and a win at the Escalada a Montjuich (a special UCI race at the end of the season), he did not hit the top of the podium, though moved up a spot to 2nd on the Tour podium as it – unfortunately - seemed that Lance Armstrong was unbeatable – he pumped time as if it was petrol into Beloki at Les Deux Alpes and atop Mont Ventoux in particular. However it seemed – if only to me – that Beloki was the only man able to keep up with Armstrong till the latter stages of the summit finishes. Indeed, some people regard him to be nothing special despite such consistency – second in the Tour is better than an anonymous placing, despite his clear abundance of stage victories. Yet again, in his home Tour, he snatched 3rd having gained a second wind on the dreaded Angliru and finished 2nd, within 2 minutes of the stage winner that day, Heras. Still, his palmares are dotted with 2nd and 3rd places – not at all bad, but how can he improve?
Joseba Beloki and Lance keep fighting on the Tour
podium: in 'cap-to-cap' combat.
Touché! - Courtesy of www.as.com
Nonetheless, Joseba Beloki’s Tour preparation has been much better this year round. If Jan Ullrich competes with newly formed Team Bianchi this year, it will be an even more fascinating battle not necessarily for the runner-up spot but for the overall win. Beloki’s Tour preparations have been much better this year than in any previous years. In the recent (very, the Cyclesport offices are in my home town) July edition of Cyclesport, the ONCE man was quoted as saying “If you want to win the Tour, start by winning something. Anything.” And he did so in the 2.3-rated Clasica Alcobendas – the race’s profile was raised by the battle between Santiago Botero and Joseba Beloki. And it was the 29 year old who won the final stage TT and subsequently took the overall, with his Colombian rival finishing 3rd on GC. But Beloki – supposedly a conservative man and a conservative racer, sticking to Lance’s wheel (people forget his unfortunate attack on the Ventoux in 2002) – hasn’t stopped there, attaining several other good results.
Beloki impersonates the face his wife made when giving birth to their child, in the Tour Prologue 2002 (clearly he can always fall back on acting if his cycling career doesn't work out!) - Courtesy of www.cyclingpictures.de
Despite a retirement from the Vuelta Asturias complaining of leg pains, Beloki has come back superbly in his home Tour, the prestigious Euskal-Bizikleta. At the time of coming to press, he had done superbly the top 10 on each of the 5 stages, winning the final one and coming runner up in Stage 4(b) against the clock – 2nd only to Paternina superman Pecharroman who has amazed everyone with his strength there. And in the final stage – arguably the toughest – Beloki outsprinted no less than Haimar Zubeldia and Francesco Casagrande to win the Stage and secure 2nd on GC, even if Pecharroman sensationally hold on to take that overall win. Three wins in a month: doesn’t sound like the Beloki you and I know!
His last race before the Tour was supposed to be the Tour of Catalunya – it would have been a fascinating head-to-head against Heras and Pecharroman…but Beloki mysteriously pulled out. He also wasn’t present at the Spanish Championships. Nonetheless, Beloki does maintain that pre-Tour form counts for nothing – it is when the wheels roll down the prologue-starting ramp that everything really matters. Mind you, even if Beloki has another Tour ‘failure’ (a podium place would be a success, let alone a win) there is also his native Vuelta a Espana to go for.
Personally, I can see Beloki doing very well this year – he has the support of arguably the best professional team in the world (ONCE-Eroski), who will undoubtedly gain some valuable seconds in the TTT, whilst maybe even hoisting him into the maillot jaune for the first time. This pre-Tour form may not be anything to go by, but he does seem more focused and dynamic: more pressure will be on Lance to make the win number 5 rather than Beloki (who is getting an unfortunate reputation as the perennial second) doing anything. It will be Lance’s Tour to lose rather than to win and if Joseba Beloki can be there if ‘Big Tex’ cracks, he could blow the field apart. Don’t underestimate this man – he is Lance Armstrong’s biggest threat for the centenary tour.