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News feature, January 19, 2009

Oscar Pereiro: The other big comeback

By Greg Johnson in Adelaide, South Australia

Oscar Pereiro is happy to be back racing
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
(Click for larger image)

There's an important rider returning to the peloton at this year's Tour Down Under. He's in his 30s, is a Tour de France winner and has finished in the top 10 on a Tour de Suisse stage. Controversy surrounded his Tour de France victory. You know who I'm talking about, right?

While Stuart O'Grady has dubbed this year's event Tour de Lance, it's not America's Armstrong I'm referring to. No, I'm talking about Spaniard Oscar Pereiro (Caisse D'Epargne), who is making his comeback following a horrifying crash at last year's Tour de France.

The two Tour champions share few similarities in their careers. Both have controversial Tour victories – Armstrong due to having unfounded accusations of doping leveled against him and Pereiro for inheriting the win after Floyd Landis was stripped of the title due to a doping positive. Beyond this the only other similarity is that both are making a comeback at this year's opening ProTour race.

Otherwise the riders hail from very different worlds. Armstrong has become a crusader in the fight against cancer after claiming 102 professional wins. Pereiro has just 12 professional victories and received the least media attention of any modern day Tour winner due to the nature of his victory.

Both, however, command a strong presence in any room they enter. Despite having to speak through a translator as a non-English speaker, Pereiro holds the eye of each reporter that fires a question at him.

"Everyone knows that on the 20th of July [2008] I nearly ended my career."

- Oscar Pereiro knows that his crash could have cost him dearly.

"It is great to be back, it is great to once again be able to put a race number on [my jersey]," he said. "I have been stopped for about six months and I am back on the bike since a month and a half.

"It is great to race at this time of year, it is great weather, it is great training and the event is great," he said. "I am really very, very happy and thankful that I could make my return to the peloton here. Everyone knows that on the 20th of July [2008] I nearly ended my career. So to be back and able to put a race number on is fantastic for me."

Pereiro crashed heabvily in last year's Tour de France
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Pereiro's crash in last year's Tour de France was nothing short of horrifying. After sliding wide on a descent in wet conditions on stage 15, the rider was flung over a metal barrier only to slam into the road below. His entire Caisse D'Epargne waited at the scene of the accident to see if they could bring their leader back to the peloton, but Pereiro's Tour and season were over.

Despite having ridden very different paths on the road to success, Pereiro is a supporter of Armstrong's return to the sport. The Spaniard spoke of Armstrong's comeback with a passion that only a fellow competitor and cycling enthusiast can.

"At first when they started to say he was going to be coming back I did not believe it," he admitted. "When you look at it now, it is great. For a great champion such as Lance to finish on his top form and to be able to come back over three years later and to once again be competitive, is a very brave move and I have a lot of respect for Lance to make that decision and to come back the way he has.

A garage of memories

Despite winning the Tour de France in 2006 Oscar Pereiro has never had the opportunity to bask in the glory atop the podium on the Tour's final stage to Paris. Instead, Pereiro received his yellow jersey more than a year later some way from the French capital, in his homeland of Spain.

The rider was presented with the yellow jersey at a low-key ceremony in the Spanish sport ministry's office, after Floyd Landis was stripped of the win following a drawn out appeal process over his positive doping control. It's almost fitting then that the famed yellow jersey takes up a low-key place at Pereiro's home.

"There is Oscar the man at home with my family and then there is Oscar the cyclist," explained Pereiro, of how he separates his personal and professional lives. "I have my house and there are no trophies inside my home. In my garage is cycling memorabilia and that is where my jersey is."

"I think that, you look at the example here [referring to the number of journalists in the room] and the attention to cycling this is drawing a lot of attention back to the peloton," he added. "I have not seen press like this in a couple of years and that is fantastic. Lance has been able to attract a lot of attention not only in sporting papers but in the general media so it is great to have that sort of thing for cycling. "

Whether Pereiro will go head-to-head with Armstrong in this year's Tour however remains to be seen. Such a showdown would depend on several issues, including both rider's form come July and the issue of leadership within Armstrong's Astana squad.

Neil Stephens gives Pereiro a protected role to get back into the groove
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
(Click for larger image)

"As far as the Tour de France goes, we will have to wait and see whether Lance can come back to the form he had a couple of years ago," he said. "In saying that there are riders in the Tour de France and riding here in the Tour Down Under and riders who will be making a comeback in Paris-Nice and other races that will basically mean it is back to the same group of riders and we will all be doing battle once again in the Tour de France."

Caisse d'Epargne sport director Neil Stephens is delighted to have Pereiro racing in his homeland this week. Stephens will, however, be looking after the rider's recovery and season ambitions, rather than pushing the rider in his first event since the July accident.

"I am really happy to have Oscar here, he is a great contributor to the team," he said. "I am really happy to see him back, not just riding his bike but here in Adelaide. In reality, we are on the starting line with six riders, I don't want Oscar to work too much for the boys I want him to get ready for the rest of the season.

"It is great having him here but for the rest of the team it doesn't change anything, we would like to win a stage and be up there on GC at the end," he said.

Pereiro admitted that there have been times since his accident that he'd wondered if he'd ever make it back to the sport. Despite having such thoughts he says he knew realistically he would always return to the sport.

Photography

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Mark Gunter

Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net

See also:

Pereiro interview: Starring from the second row
Pereiro interview: Pereiro targets top five
News feature: Wait and see
Caisse d'Epargne 2008 team presentation: Regularity Rules

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