Ladies and Gentlemen, isn't bike racing beautiful? As if 200 fit guys in lycra weren't enough, they throw in a tour of Spain, glorious Spain! Yesterday the Vuelta a España wrapped up in gorgeous Madrid, and the conquering heroes weren't bad, either. Let's review, shall we?
After three weeks of fight, it all ended up on this note:
Los Conquistadores Deliciosos!
Which is beautiful, because once again, a three week bike race presents us with three beautiful stories. Alejandro Valverde is only 23 years old, and had never won a bike race until this year. During this Vuelta, he has truly shown his quality. He'll be one to watch in the future, and it won't be hard on the eyes, either. Isidro Nozal bore the burden of leadership with all the heart, courage and dedication that makes the domestique the best part about bike racing. He rode a valiant race, and although he lost the prize on the final day, I think we're all looking at this player with a whole new respect. Finally, that little twinkly-eyed pixie of the mountains, Roberto Heras, finally closed the deal on his second Vuelta victory. Heras took the golden fleece with an incredible ascent in the Mountain Time Trial, but for my money, the race wasn't won there, it was in all the days that came before where he never gave up, and chipped away at what looked to be an insurmountable lead. Heras broke new ground in this Vuelta, and showed that he was more than just a great climber.
Of course, Heras had help, and my hat's off to master tactician Johan Bruyneel:
© USPS/Berry Floor
Bruyneel gives Heras a little push.
Bruyneel has just become the first director in a coon's age to win two grand tours in one year, with a team strong and deep enough to send two winning squads, captained by two different Champions. Moreover, both races were hard fought by tough, determined competitors, and both victories came down to strong strategic planning, and dedicated riding by teams that just never crapped out, no matter how rough the going got. Johan Bruyneel is good-lookin' and clever. Can't beat that.
The US Postal Service/Berry Floor boys all rode like studs on different days, and I saw some extremely hot action involving every one of those hardworking boys but I am going to give the Vuelta MVP award to this charming individual:
© USPS/Berry Floor
Flandis talks to the press minutes after helping
Heras win the Vuelta on stage 19.
Floyd Landis, it has been said, was raring to go for this Vuelta before he had even stripped off his kit in Paris, and he did not disappoint. His breakaway on stage 19 and perfect placement to pace Heras into Collado Villalba was just so money I could barely take it. It's great to see him back in the saddle in such a big way after his early season mishap, and I can't wait to see what happens next. Kids, for all of you who may be out of the loop on this, Floyd Landis rules.
Now, another topic I really must address is the early departure of George Hincapie. Big George has taken a lot of criticism for his decision to leave the race early, and of course he was missed by those of us enjoying the Jamon Parade at home; but really, I have to ask, what are all the rest of those guys on Postal? Chopped liver? George hit the trail early to keep fresh legs for the World Championships in Hamilton, where this reporter, throwing any shred of journalistic objectivity to the wind, will be cheering him on like mad; but don't worry, kids, because after all, the rest of the guys were able to hold down the fort, and he did leave funny glasses duty in the able hands of Matt White.
© USPS/Berry Floor
Wow. You go, Matt.
I can't go on another moment without recognizing this man, seen here in a sea of tube tops on the podium in Madrid:
Mr. Rocket Pants, Alessandro Petacchi.
Alessandro Petacchi has won 15 stages of the three grand tours this season, and that's impressive; I mean, by all accounts, it's hard to win bike race, and these tour stages are among the toughest - everyone wants those victories. Petacchi's ability to make it happen again and again the way he does is mind-boggling, but that's not what I want to address here today, no. I'm not talking about that burst of speed that makes him the current king of the sprint, nor the way he makes it look easy, coasting over the line ahead of talented comers like old standby Eric Zabel, the princely Freddy Rodriguez and surpising Belgian wunderkind Tom Boonen. It's not even the fact that he rode it out, all the way to a final stage victory in Madrid and gave the lie to those who though he couldn't get over the mountains... No, what I want to address today is the fact that Alessandro Petacchi is hot. In fifteen grand tour podium appearances, I do believe that conclusive evidence of that fact has been presented. He's the king of the road right now, and long may he reign, because he makes it look Delicioso, and I love it when the best-looking man wins.
Also keeping it delicioso on the roads in Spain, these boys:
Mm-mm, Kermit surprise!
My faithful readers know that Oscarlito Sevilla is a big favorite at Crazy Jane headquarters. He first won this reporter over with his White Jersey ride in the Tour de France in 2001, and since then, has always shown up at the races looking bight-eyed and bushy-tailed. He's charming, and he's a helluva bike racer, but he's also borne ill-fortune with fortitude and sportsmanship. 2003 has not been Oscarlito's year, but the cheeks are still rosy, and this little monkey will be back, and by next year, he may have grown a beard, so watch out, world! Meanwhile, he will be joined at the helm of the Kelme squad by his compañero, here, Alejandro Valverde, who turned out to be the revelation of this year's race, and this Kelme fan can't wait for next year.
No wrap-up on the delicioso events of this year's Vuelta would be complete without some mention of this auspicious event:
Pro-cyclists al natural: skinny & pale.
Hoping to lend a touch of glamor to a sport remembered all too often for sponsorship woes and doping accusations, Domina Vacanze's Martin Perdiguero (the cute little one in the middle with the "look at me, I'm naked" expression on his face) led some of his pals on the road to perdition, and the picture above is among the results. What an enterprising bunch! This picture paints a pretty clear picture of what happens when you wear that lycra kit and ride your bike up mountains everyday, and all I'm saying is, get these boys some sun and a milkshake. What I enjoy about this whole thing, more than the the fact that, by the way, everyone is naked, is the personality - Joan Horrach looks so bashful, Valverde so unabashed, and Sevilla saucy, but a little embarrassed, too... luckily, they all kitted back up for the remainder of the tour. Phew!
Also delicioso this time around Spain, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Marcos Serrano, and the entire ONCE squad, who went out with a brave performance, even if they did crumble a bit in the end. Gonzalez de Galdeano gave up his leadership of the team withoout complaint when it was clear that one of his domestiques was stronger, and everytime the chips were down for Nozal, it seems like Serrano was right there to pace him. The ONCE boys held the team prize and the golden jersey for 19 days, and they leave behind a beautiful history. Adios, ONCE!
ONCE after the TTT, Stage 1.
Alas, we lose iBanesto.com this year, too, who leave behind their own auspicious leagacy, and jumped over ONCE on the final day to take the team classification. Ciao, ibanesto.com! With such a history of cycling greatness, it's hard to believe these two squads and their able managers will not find the sponsorship they need to continue.
iBanesto.com takes the team classification in Madrid.
I can't wrap up this column without a big thank you to Cofidis's Bingen Fernandez for his excellent journal throughout the Vuelta. You can read about what the big dogs are doing and saying anywhere, but personally, my favorite is the backstory, and Bingen gave us his eyes in the peloton for three weeks. That was delicioso, indeed. Chapeau, Bingen!
Finally, although I know I've left out egregious amounts of the charms of the 2003 Vuelta a España, I am going bid you all adieu, and leave you with one more picture of our new Champion, because how sweet is this?:
Roberto Heras with his daughter.