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Vuelta a España Cycling News for August 26, 2006

Edited by Jeff Jones, with reporting from Shane Stokes in Malaga

Menchov gets Maillot Oro

Pereiro, Sastre, Menchov and Valverde
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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With Roberto Heras' then-record fourth win now officially gone up in smoke after his positive EPO test last September, Denis Menchov has been elevated to the position of Vuelta 2005 champion. The Rabobank rider was presented with a symbolic jersey at the end of the team presentation in Málaga on Friday evening, receiving a warm applause from the large crowd gathered there.

If anything, the Russian appeared less than enthusiastic, declining to wear the jersey on the presentation stage. "Nothing changes...it is only a statistic," he told Cyclingnews before the ceremony. It was unclear as to whether he was talking about the overall result or the fact that he didn't get to wear the jersey at the race end in Madrid last September.

Menchov won a stage and finished sixth overall in this year's Tour de France. He has stated in recent days that he consequently expects to be less fresh in this year's Vuelta, and said last night that he was unsure as to his exact form. "I hope I feel good. We will see. I felt good in San Sebastian but the Vuelta is a different story....I will have to see how things go. Between the Tour de France and this race I have been trying to keep my form. We will soon see how that went."

When asked about who he thought his main rivals would be, 28 year old Menchov was of the opinion that it was too early to have a definitive list. "It is a big group, no? Like always, it is the case in all the big Tours. You have Sastre, Valverde, Pereiro, Vinokourov, Mayo... many riders."

Valverde and Pereiro motivated for strong Vuelta

Valverde, Unzue and Pereiro
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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Unlike the other teams in the race, the Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne team will have two leaders heading into the Vuelta. Oscar Pereiro and Alejandro Valverde were both in a relaxed but determined mood at a pre-race press conference head in Málaga's NH Hotel on Friday afternoon.

ProTour leader Valverde comes into the race after a disappointing withdrawal from the Tour de France due to a broken collarbone. However, despite some enforced time off the bike, he showed strong form in the recent Clasica San Sebastián and looks and sounds like he is raring to go. "After the bad luck I had in the Tour I am really motivated at the start of the Vuelta", he told the assembled media. "At the same time I do it with certain tranquillity because I know my season has already been a successful one, thanks to my victories in the classics.

"Tomorrow I will start with the intention of doing well but without too much pressure. I know that our rivals are very strong too and that it will be difficult to win the Vuelta. That said, it is a fact that having such a great team to help me, most of all with a champion like Oscar at my side, is a big advantage compared with our rivals. If they watch him then it will be easier for me to attack and vice-versa."

Pereiro said he is hopeful
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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Pereiro has had what he admits was a stressful buildup, due to the demands of the press after his second place in the Tour de France. With Floyd Landis facing a possible two-year suspension and disqualification from the top podium of the Tour, the Spanish rider could end up as the final winner of the 2006 race. He has consequently been asked to give many interviews on the subject and stated yesterday that in order to help his career and ensure he has enough time to train and rest properly, he will have to learn to be a bit more selective with media requests in the future.

"Personally, I will take the start of the Vuelta hoping to do well but it is a fact that because of the events that took place immediately after the Tour, I did not get the possibility to rest like I would have liked to. But I certainly trained very hard and my feelings right now are not bad at all. I just hope I won't pay the pressure of the last month, and that I can get into the rhythm of the competition straight away."

Perhaps thinking back to previous tensions within teams with two leaders in recent editions of the race, the journalists present were keen to know how the Illes Balears riders would avoid such problems this time round. Both Valverde and Pereiro convincingly played down the talk of possible rivalry, the latter stating that he was tipping the ProTour leader for final honours. "Knowing his motivation, I can tell you that Alejandro is my number one favourite for the final victory in Madrid. We are two team-mates, that's true, but first of all we are very good friends. For that reason, we know that if one of us needs the help of the other then he will get it. That will create no problem at all. We will start with the same possibilities and ambitions but it is the race that will decide who is the strongest one."

Sastre relaxed before Vuelta start

After his second place in last year's Vuelta and fourth (third if Floyd Landis is disqualified) in the Tour de France, Carlos Sastre heads to this year's Tour of Spain as one of the biggest favourites. He was initially unsure about his participation due to the fact that he also rode the Giro d'Italia this year but any fears that he would be feeling flat were removed after he had a strong performance in the Clasica San Sebastián two weeks ago.

"My form is not bad," a relaxed Sastre told Cyclingnews at the teams presentation in Málaga's Plaza de la Constitución. "I feel recovered after the Tour the France and the season in general. This one has been hard for me but at this point in time I feel okay and that is what is important for making the decision [to take part in the Vuelta]."

Sastre confirmed his participation after the San Sebastián race, the CSC rider having gone clear in a dangerous break containing Denis Menchov and Iban Mayo on the final run in to the finish. Although they were caught before the end, it gave him the reassurance he needed to know that he could challenge in the Vuelta.

"I was a little surprised as to how good I felt there," he said. "Before San Sebastian I didn't train too hard but I felt good there. The last part was really tough because there was a headwind and because of that, we didn't stay away to the finish line. But we tried and it was a really positive experience.

"Since then, I spent a week and a half at home, training and spending time with my family. Then last Wednesday I went and saw the ninth stage of this race, the one to Alto de la Cobertoria in Asturias...it was really, really hard."

As was the case when asked about the Vuelta course on the day of the Clasica San Sebastián, Sastre is probably best described as accepting rather than enthusiastic. "It is the course that we have to do. It is not bad, I don't know if it is the best but we will know more about that at the end of the race. We have enough time in the time trials and the mountain stages to gain and lose everything."

When asked about his rivals, he is reluctant to name names. "At the moment, 180 riders will start tomorrow [189 – ed.] and at this point, all of them are dangerous. I have respect for all of them. We have some strong riders here. We will know more about the contenders in the next few days."

O'Grady enthusiastic

One of those who will be helping Sastre try to win the Vuelta is CSC team-mate Stuart O'Grady. The Australian seemed psyched yesterday evening, saying that he and the team were looking forward to a good race. "I am feeling good, I am ready to rock and roll. We have a very strong team here and are very motivated. Carlos has put his hand up and said he is ready to have a crack at the GC, so the whole team are here at his service. If you look at the guys here, it is a fresh team with a lot of experience.

"I am really happy to be here. It has been a bit of a dodgy start to the season for me [due to injury – ed.] but I finished the Tour de France fresh and ready to race. It is important to me to try to do something in the rest of the year."

O'Grady has a specific goal in mind. "In this race I am at the service of the team, being here to help Carlos. But my person ambitions are for the world championships in Austria.

"We have heard a lot of reports about the course. I think if I had seen the parcours before Verona, I wouldn't have gone. I have heard it not as hard as Verona but harder than Madrid, so I think it is going to be right up my alley. After that, I will go Paris-Tours and then call it a day after that, heading back to Australia for a break."

Boogerd aiming for Salzburg

Another rider here with the twin aims of riding for his team leader while also preparing for the world championships is Rabobank's Dutch champion Michael Boogerd. He was in good form during the Tour de France, being prominent in several mountain stages and finishing 14th overall. He said on Friday evening that he was a little off that level but hoping to improve. "I am not yet in that form," he stated. "I am here to train, to work hard and to try to be good in the worlds, Zurich and Lombardy."

Unlike O'Grady, Boogerd has had a chance to preview the world championship course. He's lukewarm about the parcours. "It not my favourite course but we will try to make the best of it...it is a big easy, I think. That said, it is always difficult to say how it will end up; I thought last year's course wasn't so hard either but it was really hard on the day. Verona was really tough but the race itself wasn't hard enough. So maybe this year..."

Before then, he will build form on the carreteras of Spain. "I will be riding for Denis Menchov, as was the case in the Tour. Normally he will be going for the general classification here so we will try to do our best for him. I'm not sure yet how his form is...I didn't see him so much [after the Tour], I only saw him in San Sebastian, but he was really good there. I hope he is good here also."

Walker makes his debut

Grand Tour debut
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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Will Walker stood out from the crowd yesterday due to his distinctive white, yellow and green Australian champion's jersey. One year ago he was building form prior to taking silver in the world under 23 road race championships; this time round, the first year professional is riding his first Grand Tour.

Understandably, he seemed both excited and apprehensive just before the team presentation. He outlined his expectations thus: "I have no plans as yet, I will just try to work for the team. My form is okay coming into it, pretty good, so we will see how it goes.

"I have been doing small tours and stuff until now. I did the Tour of Burgos before this, in Spain. This is my first Grand Tour...it is pretty exciting, it is going to be good. I have got a good team to ride with and learn from, so that is pretty cool."

Unique start for Vuelta

The 2006 Vuelta Espana will get underway this evening with a fast, flat 7.3 kilometre time trial running from the Estadio de Atletismo Cuidad de Málaga [City of Málaga Athletics Stadium] to the finish at the Paseo de los Curas/Paseo la Farola.

Relax-Gam will lead things off at 19.12 CEST, and will be followed at four minute intervals by each of the remaining 20 teams in the race. The start order is Relax-Gam, Lampre-Fondital, Davitamon-Lotto, Phonak Hearing Systems, Francaise des Jeux, Credit Agricole, T-Mobile, Bouygues Telecom, Liquigas, AG2R Prévoyance, Cofidis, Milram, Quick Step – Innergetic, Gerolsteiner, Saunier Duval – Prodir, Euskaltel – Euskadi, Discovery Channel, Astana, Illes Balears - Caisse d'Epargne, Team CSC and, finally, the Rabobank squad of defending champion Denis Menchov.

Given the high speeds expected from a team time trial and the very short duration of the test, large time gaps are unlikely. However it should be a spectacular start to the race.

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