Roberto Heras: Needless to say, the Tour of Spain defending champion attended the 2004 Vuelta presentation ceremony in Madrid, and when asked his opinion on the parcours, he wasn’t complaining at all.
Heras told journalists that “with a such a route, featuring seven top mountain top finishes as well as four Time Trials, you can never take it easy. Not even one day” and that the new mountains will perfectly replace the legendary climbs of Pyrenees and Asturias, excluded from next year’s contest, but also added that “us climbers will definitely benefit from the Sierra Nevada uphill ITT. Sure this will be a hard and demanding race for everyone. And even if there’s no Asturian or Pyrenean climbs, there are other new ascents, like Calar Alto, that may be dangerous. We’ll have to check them before anyway. And the Puerto de Navacerrada, notably if tackled by that side, will prove very selective”. According to the Liberty Seguros’ new signing, also the fact of having short(er than usual) flat stages will play in favour of the climbers.
Not surprisingly, the mountain goat from Béjar said that his number one target for the next season will be the Tour de France anyway, although he’ll have a go at the Vuelta too. But when it comes to favourites, Heras didn’t want to name names: “With almost one year to go before that start, it’s just too early for that”.
Isidro Nozal: Things that may happen: Roberto Heras’ main rival in the 2003 Vuelta will be a team-mate of his in the coming season. And no doubts that, with the top 2 finishers of the past edition in the roster, Liberty Seguros will be the team to beat in the next Tour of Spain. The young gun from Cantabria, whose great performance in the past month of September was a surprise to many, described the 2004 race route as a “very nice, hard, diversified” one, that “will provide fans with a huge spectacle”.
After admitting that having the man he recently battled over the Vuelta title with as a team-mate, and as the man he will be joining his forces with in order to get wins, is a bit strange, 26-year-old Nozal from Rioseco de Guriezo added that ”I like the route also because it gives plenty of opportunities to everyone, with both ITTs and mountain stages. The race will be tough from the beginning”.
And now that he’s a “big name” of the Spanish peloton, Nozal may even talk of his possible rivals in the 2004 Vuelta. He said that the main challenges will once again come from fellow Spaniards. And when it came to naming names, he was a little more “eloquent” than Heras, and even if last year’s number one rival is part of of his team now, the Cantabrian warned that, as much as himself and Valverde burst into spotlight in 2003, some other lesser-known riders might came out and steal the show the next time too. He also sounded eager to know whether last year’s second place finish was just fortuitous or not. And the next Vuelta will be the best place to get an answer.
In Nozal’s opinion, both he and Heras may have a shot at winning the Vuelta, but as for the TdF he’s still a bit uncertain about what he will be able to do: he has raced France’s main race twice, and didn’t perform well in either occasion. Perhaps the Cantabrian will make his third attempt next year. Without aiming for overall victory of course, although, according to his most recent team-mate, Nozal is talented enough to be able to go for the win in a few years.
Aitor Gonzalez: As soon as the Vuelta 2004 Route presentation ended, journalists turned their cameras and microphones towards the riders, and the main stars of the Spanish peloton in particular: Heras, Sevilla, Beloki etc. To the surprise of some, 2002 Tour of Spain overall winner Aitor Gonzaléz Jiménez was a bit overlooked, at least if compared to the above mentioned colleagues. But the Fassa-Bortolo rider didn’t sound upset and told one of the journalists that didn’t neglect him that “Things like that may happen in sport. When you are at the top, everyone looks at you. When you year has not been that fine, and things didn’t go the way you wanted too, they might look for someone else. But that’s normal”.
And even when the same journalist asked why even Oscar Sevilla, who has never won the Tour of Spain (so far at least) was getting more media coverage than him, "TerminAitor" laughed and jokingly said, “Well, maybe Sevilla is better than me in front of the cameras”.
But one of the reasons that led many Spanish journalists to prefer other riders may be that Aitor, now racing for a non-Spanish team, has changed his priorities, and the Vuelta is no longer at the top spot: as the Fassa-Bortolo rider admitted: “I can tell you that my plans for 2004 are quite clear. My first objective is the Tour de France now, and the main thing I want do is to know how far I can go in that race, which is the most important one in the international calendar after all”.
With the man focused on the "Grande Boucle" his chances of racing the Giro are close to zero. In Aitor’s own words, the Spaniard will instead choose other races that may be of help in his build-up for his number one target.
Neverthless, González keeps the doors open for his eventual participation in the 2004 Vuelta a España: “This race has always had a particular meaning for me, and will always have. The point is that we’ll just have to wait and see how I’ll be doing next year, and make a decision by September”. Asked to comment upon the 2004 Tour of Spain parcours, the 2002 overall winner said that “It’s a long race, with many ascents. A route good for the best ones, the most in-form riders in the peloton, as it really gives them plenty of opportunities to show their skills”.
Oscar Sevilla: Or the Vuelta as obsession. When at Kelme, the man from Ossa de Montiel made more than one attempt to win the race that – as he has never hidden – he likes the most. And even after his move to the Switzerland-based Phonak squad the Vuelta still tops his agenda, “That’s a race I’m really eager to win,” Sevilla admitted again today.
Maybe El Niño started his search for an overall Vuelta victory at a very young age, maybe a little too early?? Sevilla didn’t seem to agree. In his opinion the man’s early attempts, even if failed, helped him “to become more experienced and learn new things year after year”.
And what can he say on his 2003? “Honestly, last year was quite an empty one for me. I spent a lot of time off the bike, but the good side of the matter is that at least I didn’t waste too many energies. And hopefully that will be of help in 2004, notably help me win the Vuelta, which in my opinion is the race that mostly suits my skills, although if one wants to take it, he’s gotta be at 110% for sure, and also have luck on his side”.
The fact other Spanish stars like Heras and Aitor González are mainly focused on the Tour, while Beloki, riding with a French outfit, might even skip the Vuelta, could turn “El Niño” into a red hot favourite to take the title in September. How is he going to deal with that? “I’m not afraid of that. I’ll be there. I’m ready to assume my responsibilities. All I need is a bit of luck. Better, I need bad luck to stay away from me, and I need to be given the chance to train and do what I’m able to”.
As for his current situation at Phonak, “We already had a get-together. Took some team photos and looked after bikes and other things. I just left a great bunch of guys like Kelme, where I had a lot of friends, and I’m about to start a new cycle in a new team, which makes me glad. I think I can do great things with them: it’s a new, young squad, guys eager to make their mark in the professional cycling scene and, with some team support, my motivation and wish to do well may help me get some wins and pay back (Phonak’s DS) Alvaro Pino and the Phonak team bosses for believing in me, and make them happy with my performances next year."
Sevilla will be Phonak’s co-leader along with another newcomer to the Swiss squad: Tyler Hamilton. And it looks like both will be working together in the Tour - “Tyler will be focusing on early season races and the TdF, and I’ll be doing Tour and Vuelta. Having an experienced rider like him, that even raced beside Armstrong and learned a lot from him, as team-mate, and sharing the leadership with him is definitely a good thing, and may take excessive responsibilities away from me”.
Oscar Sevilla also talked about one stage in particular: the Almeria - Observatorio Meteorologico de Calar Alto stage (Stage 12), which he took a look at recently.
Like Cabello (see his words down in the page), Sevilla has a house in Zubia, and knows the Granada area climbs. But the Bacares and Calar Alto climbs are different;
the Phonak team leader said, "I had never been there, nor had anybody spoken to me of these cols. But it is very hard terrain."
"If the stage finishes with these two cols, it is a good ambush, because Bacares will break the peloton into a thousand pieces and then there is neither time nor terrain to wait for anybody before beginning the climb to Calar Alto. It will be terrible rhythm change after the descent of Bacares, because there is not a single flat meter. The legs will burst on those first kilometers of Calar, possibly the hardest in that last ascent."
"It is above the 2000 meters and that is important," he says. He visited recently and there was snow on the ground, but he says
that in September, "It can be very hot and the differences will
be big, although it is not comparable with other big ascents."
While some have commented that these climbs are not themselves
that formidable, Sevilla says, "The sum of the two cols is what
makes them different."
Joseba Beloki: Even though he will be racing for a French team, the Basque downplayed the risk of not taking part in the 2004 Vuelta, saying that “My main target will be the Tour de France, but my schedule will be the same as in recent years" (when the man was at start line of Spain’s GT too).
Asked about the route, Beloki (admittedly eager to get back to the road after the dranmatic crash which put a end to his 2003 season at the 2003 TdF) said that it will prompt a “complicated race”, pointed out the danger coming from the “wind factor” in flat stages, and added that the difficult climbs of the last week will likely take their toll on many riders: “In my opinion the key stages will be the final ones, from Granada to Madrid, and to be in top form there will just be fundamental”.
Alejandro Valverde: Last year’s podium finisher, and silver medallist at the World Champs two weeks later. Appreciated the 2004 parcours, even if he found it “very demanding” and added that what he likes the most is the Sierra Nevada ITT, whereas the flat time trials don’t make him that happy.
As for the part he’ll be playing at Kelme after Sevilla’s departure (and Angel Casero’s likely coming to the “green army”), ambitious Valverde said that "I was the team's co-leader besides Sevilla last year too, so leading Kelme in the 2004 Vuelta would not be that new to me. I think I am ready to aim for the top of the podium”. And sure that fact that nmost of his main rivals will be donibng the "double" (Tour and Vuelta) while he'll get to the startline with his legs still fresh, might help.
But the Murcian rider admitted that his main objective for the coming season will be the Olympic Race at Athens, “a chance you are given every four years only”, thus even more significant than the same Vuelta.
Francisco Cabello (Kelme): Francisco Cabello of Kelme talked to AS.com about the Granada-Sierra Nevada uphill finish time trial, which takes place Sunday, 19 September (Stage 15).
Cabello was born and lives in La Zubia, ten kilometers from the base of La Purche climb, which is part of Stage 15. Cabello knows the climb very well, having ridden it countless times. He says, "This timed climb will mark the Vuelta. The climbers can take out around the three minutes of advantage."
He continues: "It is much harder that the Abanto time trial, or that of Valdezcaray of some years ago. It also takes place at the end of the second week of the race, which can do even more harm."
"There are about eight kilometers at the start which are a mild climb, until the ascent begins in the neighborhood of Monachil. There are two and a half kilometers of eight percent. Starting from there, there is a two kilometers respite to the town of Monachil."
To the Purche: "There the ascent begins to La Purche that is the hardest section, in which differences will be marked and very important, because in the first kilometer and half it doesn't get off twelve percent. Then there are portions of up to fifteen percent, and also in the last four hundred meters of ascent."
Vincente Belda, the sport director of Kelme, had comments on both his
favorite for the race as well as the race itself. He said his favorite " is
Roberto Heras, the last winner, although Valverde won't be very far from him."
Belda went on to say, "The race is very complicated. Although there are not
high mountains, those aspiring to win should be solid and should be supported by
strong teams. There is no Angliru, but the Sierra Nevada time trial will make a
Alvaro Pino, director of Phonak, pointed out that it will be "a race of
elimination," and said the stages near Madrid will be key - with the Navacerrada
mountain finish on the penultimate day, and the final contrarreloj in the
capital "that won't be flat."
Pino mentioned his star rider, Oscar Sevilla. "I hope for a lot with him.
Last year he was not lucky with the lesions and if that is behind him, he will
be a rider to dispute the Vuelta. We will overturn things with Oscar."
Thanks to La Vuelta, Marca, Todociclismo, AS.com.
Click on the links below for the 2004 Tour of Spain Route Special report, containing all details (stage list, climbs, profiles, stage-by-stage description and more) of next year's third Grand Tour.