Could 2012 be the year when Juan Antonio Flecha breaks his duck at Paris-Roubaix? The popular Spaniard, who turns 35 this year, has had a series of near misses in the 'Queen of Classics', with three podium finishes and three other top ten placings. It's a race that he desperately wants to win, and he also told Cyclingnews of another burning ambition when we caught up with him at the Team Sky training camp in Mallorca.
"If I had to choose one race to win now, it would be Paris-Roubaix," he said. "I have been close there many times and to win it would be amazing. I know many Belgian fans would say ‘come on Flecha, the Belgian races are the best’, but for me right now I would have to say Paris-Roubaix would be my dream.
"I’d also really love to do the Tour de France again this year. It would be my tenth Tour in a row. That would make me very proud and I would really think ‘wow, look at that, that’s fantastic'. I know that I would be going there to work for Mark [Cavendish] and Bradley [Wiggins] and that will keep me occupied. But I’d be lying to you if I told you that I wouldn’t like to win another stage at the Tour. I won’t shirk any of my responsibilities to my team, but I can’t hide my desire to win a stage. I won a stage in my first Tour and it felt unbelievably good. I would love to feel that again."
Flecha has an enormous amount of faith in his coaches at Team Sky, and the feedback that he has received from them over the winter has given him confidence that he can still improve, even at this relatively late stage of his career.
"Can I still improve? It's an interesting question," he says. "I really believe that I can. As long as you show desire and want to improve, you will. If you think, even at my stage of my career, that you have done everything and that you can’t get better then you might as well retire. I am still a pro cyclist and I love it. It’s not my business to analyse how I can get better. It’s up to my coaches. If they think I can improve in certain areas they tell me what to do. And they believe that I can. I have total faith in them.
"I feel good at this stage of the winter but the most important thing is that my coaches are pleased with me. They plan exactly how they want me to be in January. The detail that they go into is very thorough. On my last day of training last season my coaches had already planned my first day of this season. Right now my numbers are exactly where they want them to be."
As a Spaniard who lives in Barcelona, Flecha is well-placed to discuss the relative merits of Mallorca as a training base. And despite some initial reservations he has been really impressed with both the location of the Team Sky camp and the meticulous fashion with which the riders' schedules have been planned.
"At first I was a bit sceptical about Mallorca because in the south of the island the geography is all very similar," he said. "But up here in the north you have flat roads, rolling hilly roads and sharp climbs, so there is a bit of everything. It can be windy but that’s ok as you ride with a group and at this time of year the roads are really quiet. At first I was thinking that there may be some better places in southern Spain for the camp but I have been really pleasantly surprised. It’s also just a 20-minute flight from my home in Barcelona so that makes things easy for me.
"The coaches and the sporting directors have prepared everything perfectly. We are doing everything – motor pacing, climbs and flat rides. I loved being here in December and I have loved this section of the camp too. Here we are solely focussed on riding our bikes. There are no distractions and you don’t have to decide anything for yourself. There is no deliberation as to which group you are going to join as you are told what to do. The five or six-hour rides only seem like a couple of hours, and that’s a really encouraging sign."
Fans can expect to see Flecha in action for the first time in 2012 at the Tour of Qatar next month, which has become a traditional curtain raiser for him.
"Qatar is a race that I like a lot," he said. "It’s a really nice race to enter to start off your season because you always stay in the same hotel, the transfers from the airport are small and the weather is usually good. So in some respects it’s a familiar, calm and gentle introduction to the season. I’m also suited to the cross winds that you have there."