2006 UCI World Road Championships
CM Salzburg, Austria, September 20-24, 2006
In the Spanish camp, the mood was easy on Friday morning as the team sat down with the media representatives to explain its strategies for the upcoming World's road race. Hedwig Kröner was there to see how Alejandro Valverde and his companions were feeling two days ahead of the big event.
"Pressure? Me?" replied Alejandro Valverde as his teammate Carlos Sastre jokingly said that the team leader had a lot on his plate for Sunday's road race. Just before, the helpers of one of the biggest favourites for the 2006 rainbow jersey had described their feelings going into the race, with Valverde naturally named as the man to support for the victory.
But the winner of Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastigne-Liège doesn't show that he is under pressure; quite to the contrary. Valverde made a focused but relaxed impression, and he certainly has all the reason to be confident. Finishing an impressive second in the Vuelta behind Alexandre Vinokourov, the Spaniard took a few days to recuperate before travelling to Austria. "I haven't done anything, really, after the Vuelta," he said. "Just tried to get my forces back and then travelled to Salzburg."
Valverde hadn't seen the course around the Austrian capital just yet, but he was positive that it would suit him. "On paper, the parcours is good for me. I'll discover it today." Spanish team coach Paco Antequera confirmed: "This course is too tough for it to come down to a bunch sprint, that's for sure. It will create a selection, certainly in the last three or four laps, where we will play our cards."
The man who picked 'la selecciòn' is certain that the Spanish roster will be strong enough to support Valverde in the race finale - unlike last year in Madrid, where the team leader was on his own in the final kilometres. Antequera admitted himself that the man who got second twice in the World Championships could have snatched the win from Tom Boonen in 2005, hadn't he been on his own in that crucial finale.
"I'm positive that this is the best team we could come up with," Antequera said. "Every one of these riders had has victories this season, which makes it better for the finale, because we have more than one card to play. Of course, what I would like to see is that Alejandro will have one or two teammates with him in the final group. It would be good if Sastre was there to protect him."
But before the race finish, the team coach wanted to take the - now admitted - pressure off the rest of the roster by having "Samuel Sanchez, Francisco Ventoso or Xavier Florencio in an early break. That way, the others are more 'tranquilo' before the attacks will go in the last laps."
Of course, three-times World Champion Oscar Freire will be missed. "It would have been better if Freire was here," said Valverde. "We could have shared the responsibility for the victory." But he was confident that his teammates would be strong enough to up front with him, and - who knows? - even have their own card to play. "I think that Samuel Sanchez is really good right now; he could be in the front with me," Valverde continued. "The same goes for Sastre."
Assessing his competition, the Spaniard said the he feared the Italian squad the most. "The Italians are certainly the strongest team here. Then, in terms of individual riders, I'd say that Vinokourov, Di Luca, Bettini, Schumacher are the ones to watch. I don't know about Boonen. If he's there at the finish, it will be complicated. He's certainly faster than I am. It will be hard to beat him."
But teammate Juan Antonio Flecha didn't believe that the front group surviving the last lap would be very big. "This course is perfect for attacks in the climb, and it will be hard to chase down the leaders after that," he commented. "This climb [the second on the course - ed.] actually reminds me of the Leberg in Flanders, the last climb before the Berendries. It's also very narrow and twisty in the beginning. I don't think that the last group will have 30 riders in it, more like 10 or 12."
Team leader Valverde agreed, and added that he thought his biggest rival would again be Alexandre Vinokourov, the man who took the maillot oro off him at the Vuelta. "He is so strong right now," the Spaniard said, certainly looking back on those dreadful moments when the Kazakhstani attacks in the last mountains of the Vuelta made him lose the overall lead.
Asked what he lacked to take the rainbow jersey after getting the silver medal twice in the event, Valverde just smiled: "I just need a little bit more luck, I guess. Getting second is the nearest you can get to first, so there's only very little missing. It certainly would help if my rivals would be less strong!"