Vuelta Travelogue - Anticipation and Trepidation
Vuelta a Espana 2006: Introduction
Normally we would be looking forward to the third Grand Tour of the season with great anticipation. Instead it is with nervous trepidation that we await the 2006 Vuelta a Espana. Last year we celebrated Roberto Heras becoming the first rider to win four Vuelta's. Shortly after standing victoriously on the podium in Madrid we learned that he had tested positive for EPO. Since then the now banned Heras has waged a legal battle to protect his victory and prove his innocence.
Vuelta 05: the beginning of 12 bad months for Grand Tour winners (© lavuelta.com)
The 2006 Giro d'Italia was dominated by Ivan Basso with a series of incredible rides where he appeared to be in a class all by himself. His victory was savored until July when news of ‘Operacion Puerto' revealed that Basso was implicated in the scandal. While Basso has not been formally charged with illegal drug use, the news coming from Spain does not ‘auger' well for him. We could well see Basso stripped of his Giro victory.
With Armstrong in retirement the whole world waited eagerly for the Tour de France. As the riders were making their way to the start in Strasbourg the Spanish police revealed details of a drug ring we now know as ‘Operacion Puerto'. Basso was implicated as was Jan Ullrich. Along with these two favorites for the Tour many other riders were named and suddenly the top five from the 2005 Tour were gone. In the final hours leading up to the Tour start prospects that the race would even get under way looked very grim. But start it did and for three weeks we were treated to one of the best Tours ever. After a spectacular collapse on Stage 16 Floyd Landis returned the following day to reclaim his place at the head of the race. Like Heras and Basso before him he too tasted victory in a Grand Tour. Then just days later it was announced that he had failed a drug test, which indicated his system had improper testosterone parameters. Landis is now disgraced and he too is now waging a legal battle to prove his innocence.
Within the space of 12 months we have seen three Grand Tours scandalized by the prospect of drugs and cheating. The sport is at an all time low in the eyes of the public. Worse still, sponsors are turning away and teams are disappearing.
The 2006 Vuelta is going to be the most important race of the year with respect to rebuilding credibility of the Pro Tour program. We can assume that the Spanish police, who uncovered ‘ Operacion Puerto', will be very close to the Vuelta. It is to be hoped that we will get through the race without any riders failing drug tests. The sport will have a hard, if not impossible, time extricating itself from a scandal that brings down yet another Grand Tour winner.
Each of the Grand Tours enjoys the spectacular geography and cultures of Europe. The routes are designed to showcase the undeniable beauty of each country. Spain is a wonderful country rich in a unique culture that draws on history and is yet very much 21st Century. Starting in the vacation resort of Malaga on the Mediterranean coast, the race heads due north to the rugged Atlantic seaboard, through Basquenland before heading south again to return to the Mediterranean coast. Several tough stages take in the challenging back country of Andalusia as the race again faces north and makes its final trek to the finish in Madrid .
If last year's winner Heras loses his current appeal the plan is to have a ceremony in Madrid just before the Vuelta starts to recognize Denis Menchov as the official Vuelta 2005 winner. Everybody behind Menchov will move up one place and thus CSC's Carlos Sastre will be recognized as the 2005 runner up.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal wrangling, Sastre and Menchov could well be two of the main contenders again this year. Both riders rode exceptionally well in the Tour de France (Sastre 4th and Menchov 6th). As an indicator of current form they both also featured in a late three man break (along with Iban Mayo) in the recent Clasica San Sebastián. For his part, and following a disastrous Tour for him, Iban Mayo has been showing great form in recent weeks with some significant wins in Spain. He along with Alejandro Valverde, who is still on the come back trail following injury, will be shouldering great hopes for Spain .
After the San Sebastián Sastre expressed surprise at his level of form and motivation. Having already ridden the Giro and Tour this year it will be a significant performance if he also finishes the Vuelta strong (and maybe the winner). He has two things in his favor; first as a member of the CSC team he has the support of probably the strongest outfit in the Pro Tour circuit, second the Vuelta (like the Giro) is typically dominated by home nationals and all of Spain will be behind Sastre.
If we go by the Tour, predicting anything for the Vuelta is probably a useless exercise. The race is almost guaranteed to be wide open and full of surprises. With the dark and menacing shadow of ‘Operacion Puerto' creating a sobering backdrop, the riders and their team supporters know that possibly the immediate future of cycling lies squarely on their collective shoulders. For them and cycling fans La Vuelta will be greeted with great anticipation as well as nervous trepidation.
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