2008 Summer Olympic Games feature, August 6, 2008
Five top riders means that one squad stands out as favourite for the Olympic road race. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes looks at the powerful Spanish men's road race team, where Alejandro Valverde will likely be the go-to man for the medals.
Undoubtedly one of the strongest teams – arguably the strongest – in next Saturday's Olympic road race will be that of Spain. Tour de France winners Carlos Sastre and Alberto Contador will be there, and will be joined by triple world champion Oscar Freire, Samuel Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde.
All are proven winners and have – with the exception of Sanchez – shown world-beating form this season. Sastre won the Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France and went on to land the overall title. Contador and his Astana team were prevented from riding the race, but the Spaniard has nonetheless racked up several important wins; he took the Giro d'Italia in June, and also triumphed in the Vuelta a Castilla y León and the Vuelta a País Vasco. He took two stage victories in both.
Freire took his sole victory on stage 14 of the Tour de France and won the green jersey classification. Earlier successes this year include two stages and the points competition in Tirreno Adriatico, the Gent-Wevelgem Classic and stage one of the Tour de Suisse. And while Sanchez hasn't hit the same level of form yet, he took a solid seventh overall in the Tour.
"Being one of the five riders who will represent Spain in the road race is both an honour and something to be proud of." -Alejandro Valverde is excited to race in Beijing at the Summer Olympic Games
Of those on the team, a strong argument can be made for Valverde having the best chance of success. He's an explosive climber, a good tactician and a strong sprinter. As his victories in this year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the recent Clásica San Sebastián showed, he has the characteristics necessary to win on tougher courses.
Sastre and Contador are better climbers on the highest cols. That much is clear. Freire is a better sprinter, and Sanchez is a red-hot descender. But looking at the Olympic course, it seems likely that – on paper at least – the Caisse d'Epargne rider is the strongest bet for gold.
"This course suits my characteristics very well," Valverde stated in recent days. "The first part consists of 80 completely flat kilometres, followed by seven laps on a very hard circuit with twelve kilometres uphill and twelve kilometres downhill. I believe that after the Tour de France, I will have the necessary endurance for such a difficult race.
"After the Tour, it is normal to be tired but the chance to take part in the Olympic Games is a dream for me. That gives me the courage I need to approach this event. It is true that this race is a lottery, but I will head to the start very motivated and am very grateful to be selected."
The Olympic road race was, until 1996, limited to amateur riders. In the years since the prestige of the event has grown, and now it has replaced the world championships as the biggest single-day title in the sport. Valverde has already taken two silvers and a bronze in the worlds. Medalling – or, ideally, winning – in Beijing would be a highlight of his career thus far.
"Being one of the five riders who will represent Spain in the road race is both an honour and something to be proud of," Valverde said, speaking about the significance of the race. "I will do my best to defend the colours of my country and try to get a medal.
"I believe that this is one of the most dangerous teams. Everybody knows what Alberto has already won this year and what he is able to do in every kind of race. Carlos just won the Tour and Oscar and Samuel also achieved a great Tour. I believe that the five of us can contend for a medal."
Valverde has been in strong form all season. Back in March he got the ball rolling when he won a stage plus the overall in the Vuelta a Murcia, then went on to place second in the Klasika Primavera, first in Paris-Camembert, third in the Amstel Gold Race and first in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He then focussed on preparing for the Tour de France, showing good condition by winning the Dauphiné Libéré, the Spanish championships and stage one of the Tour. And while his goal of a podium placing in the French race didn't materialise – he was ninth overall – winning the Clásica San Sebastián proved that he came out of it in good condition.
He is delighted to head to Beijing with that morale booster. "This is the victory of an entire team, Caisse d'Epargne," he stated afterwards. "I don't know how I can thank all my team-mates for the job they did, enabling me to get this first win in the Clásica."
Valverde missed the break early on and had to chase across with team-mate Vladimir Karpets. He was concerned about the energy used, but things worked out well. This too heightened his satisfaction about how things went.
"I feared that all those efforts could be fatal to me in the final part of the race. But fortunately it was not the case, and I had enough strength left to launch and win the sprint.
"I finished the Tour de France very motivated, I proved it today. Physically as well as mentally, I am feeling very well one week before the next appointment, the Olympic Games. If we are lucky in Beijing, I think that we will do great things over there too."
Valverde and the rest of the team flew from Madrid to Paris and then on to Beijing, starting their journey on Sunday. While the squad is hugely impressive on paper, he knows that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Far from it, in fact. There will be a number of big rivals for the gold medal, and Valverde pinpoints riders from the German and Italian teams as the main ones to watch.
"Personally, I fear Stefan Schumacher in particular, if one considers the great condition he showed during the entire Tour. The outgoing Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini must also be taken into account. And there surely will be many other riders who prepared very well for this special event."
The outcome could well be influenced by other factors as well, he feels. "Humidity, pollution and the hot weather - which could cause dehydration - could strongly influence the course of the race," Valverde stated. "I believe that we will [all] have a very difficult Olympic Games."
Even so, the heat and humidity would doubtlessly suit the Spaniards more than those from Northern Europe. This would help their chances, as will the formidable line-up they have put together. Valverde is just one of the strong riders on the team; his characteristics suggest he has the best chance, but in truth any one of the five could win.
He's hoping that he will be the one to stand on the top step of the podium. "It would be dream come true!" he enthused. "This is certainly my best season, and to crown it with an Olympic title would allow me to consider my next objectives with more tranquillity."