The Spanish press (Marca, AS, etc.) are all reporting today that Tyler
Hamilton, the Olympic Time Trial Gold Medalist, will indeed ride this year's
Vuelta Espana. If so, he will join one of the most competitive and star-filled
starts of the Vuelta Espana for many years. Since the Boulangere team have withdrawn from the race, 21 teams of 9 riders will make the start in the beautiful
city of León, with all the teams fighting against the clock in what will be a
spectacular, dramatic and beautiful start to the race.
Defending champion Roberto Heras, now with Liberty Seguros, will have last
year's great hero and challenger Isidro Nozal on his own team this year, and other
stars who will be looking to make an impression on the race will be Giro winner Damiano Cunego, World Road
Race Champion Igor Astarloa, Milan San Remo winner
Oscar Freire, the sensational Alejandro Valverde, winner of the Allround Overall
Standings, Grand Tour specialist Joseba Beloki, and another rider on the
comeback trail after an injury hit season, Alexander Vinokourov.
Last year's 1 and 2, Roberto Heras and Isidro Nozal, toasting.
Kings of the Mountains
As is fitting for a race, the 10th stage finishes on the “Xorret
de Catí” and is dedicated to the memory of José María “Chava” Jiménez, who won
the first time it was climbed in 1998. Félix Cárdenas (winner of last year's KoM
competition), Claus Möller, Oscar Sevilla, Stefano Garzelli, and Paolo
Savoldelli will be looking to soar like eagles over the summits. Indeed it is
easy to argue that the 2004 Vuelta is a race for climbers; with 6 summit
finishes, one 29 kilometre climb time trial, 4 special category climbs, thirteen
1st category and eleven 2nd Category climbs, the teams have chosen arguably the best
selection of climbers in any of the major
Tours this year. Also searching for stage wins and the chance of winning the
King of the Mountains are riders like Pietro Caucchioli, USA rising star Tom
Danielson (Fassa) while Italian rivals bring and impressive trio of
Casagrande, Garate and Piccoli....
Saunier Duval bring an excellent squad to back Beloki and one which will
shine even if he falters, Piepoli is still one of the most exciting climbers
to watch in the peloton.
Piepoli's win at the Subida Urkiola. Courtesy Saunier Duval.
The fast men are not forgotten with 6 flatter stages in which the kings of
speed should triumph. King of the Sprints Alessandro Petacchi will be
looking to add to his 16 victories already this season. Angelo Furlan,
Stuart O’Grady, Luca Paolini, Alejandro Valverde, Oscar Freire and Max Van Heeswijk will be the riders attempting to stop him. However, provided he is
in top shape, very few people would bet against the “Modest Man” Petacchi
from being the fastest of the fast men again.
Petacchi gets the better of Zabel (who will not be riding this year).
You will not win this race solely on the ability to time trial, but if you
can't do a good time against the clock you will not win - 3 individual time
trials of around 100 kms, of which 29 kms is a mountain Time Trial (stage
15). Since the race keeps to its 2003 format in the opening stage in Leon, a team time trial over 28 kms, riders without a strong balanced team
could find themselves out of the race before it had started. No one can
argue with a Gold Olympic medal, and if Hamilton does start he knows he can
gain time on these stages. Nozal, Hruska, Bodrogi, could all well feature
in the individual events, but expect the opening day to be a battle between Libert Seguros, Illes Balears, CSC, T- Mobile and US Postal.
US Postal, Vuelta 2003 – will the blue train ride again? Courtesy
Breakaways and Others
So that leaves 5 stages for the breakaway, sprint finish or surprise.
Expect to see a lot of early attacks by local teams. Almost impossible to
predict who will win these stages, so we will leave Spain with Spain.
Perdiguero wins san Sebastian. Courtesy Saunier Duval.