Among the riders entitled to rub their hands on Thursday, as the Spanish Cycling Federation announced that it had proposed a one-year ban for Alberto Contador, might well have been HTC-Highroad’s Peter Velits.
A surprise third-place finisher in last year’s Vuelta a España, the 25-year-old Slovak could now be an even darker horse for his first Tour de France as a team leader in July. Schadenfreude aside, like anyone else with designs on the Tour podium, Velits must privately acknowledge that his task has become a fraction easier following Thursday’s announcement.
Speaking to Procycling magazine at his team’s training camp in California in December, Velits had been cagey about his prospects in the Grande Boucle. “I don’t really want to set a specific target,” he said. “Anything can happen in a three-week race. Now I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of contending in a three-week tour, so I just want to make sure that I’m prepared and ready for the Tour de France.”
Such caution, though, conceals the steely determination which first drew the HTC management to Velits and his twin brother Martin, a strong rouleur and Classics specialist. “They’re real fighters,” HTC chief Bob Stapleton told Cyclingnews. “They just get their head down and get on with it.”
Mark Cavendish has also paid tribute to the duo’s performances at last year’s Vuelta, where the Manxman took three stages and Peter caused the upset of the race by beating Fabian Cancellara to time trial victory over a 46km course in Peñafiel.
“There was Peter, competing for a place on the podium, yet still doing these massive one-kilometre pulls for me in the final week. It was amazing,” Cavendish said.
Equally impressive, though hardly surprising given their reputation, was how both Martin and Peter turned their 2010 season around after a frustrating start. The 2007 Under 23 world champion, Peter had completely overhauled what was one of the most unorthodox riding positions in the bunch after his move from Milram at the end of 2009, and admitted to “trying too hard” in the early part of last year.
“The thing is, we were very motivated at the start of the season, very keen to prove ourselves here,” he explained in California. “Maybe we were a bit too motivated… I then crashed at the Dauphiné, broke my collarbone, missed the Tour, and started to think that it was turning into a bit of a shit year. The only consolation was that we had a two-year contract. Almost straight away, though, we started thinking about the Vuelta. Martin and I knew that we’d be riding there together and that it could be a great opportunity… In a way, the injury also helped because it made me rest for once.”
While it worked in Spain, one moot point ahead of the Tour is how HTC-Highroad can successfully challenge on two fronts – with Cavendish in sprints and Velits and maybe also Tony Martin or Tejay Van Garderen on general classification. When Cavendish scooped four stage wins in 2008, his then Columbia team-mate Kim Kirchen was still able to finish 7th overall - but in the last two Tours the sprinter’s continued success has both inspired and relied upon the total dedication of his cohorts.
The team’s manager, Rolf Aldag, admits that he and his men face a difficult though not impossible dilemma.
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but it’s different if you go in as a Tour favourite,” Aldag admitted recently. “If you realistically say that you want to have the best possible result in the Tour, but you’re not the favourite, you just stay with the best. I mean, you don’t have to make that race. We have to control the race for the sprinters because we have the best sprinter. Cav’s unbeatable if he’s 100 per cent, unless someone comes out of nowhere, an alien…”
“But we have the advantage that riders like Peter can do his job in the first week of the Vuelta for Cav then still be going for GC,” Aldag continued. “Same with Tony Martin in the 2009 Tour de France, when he held the white jersey for nearly two weeks yet was still in every lead-out. So it’s better for us to be realistic and say that we’re going for a really high GC finish without telling Peter or Tony Martin or Tejay Van Garderen, here are eight riders for you and we want you to win the Tour….”
While most would agree that Velits remains a yellow jersey outsider, it’s quite certain that Andy Schleck, Ivan Basso et al would be unwise to underestimate him. The online bookmaker offering 200-1 against a Velits Tour win on Friday should surely heed the same warning….
A full, extended interview with both Velits twins appears in the Season Preview 2011 issue of Procycling magazine, on sale in the UK on February 1st.