By Hedwig Kröner
The Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi has been impressive in recent ProTour stage races throughout June. At the Dauphiné Libéré, 28 year-old Iñigo Landaluze would not let the overall win slip away even if he was under a lot of pressure by Phonak and Gerolsteiner; and at the Tour de Suisse, the Orange squad again produced a surprise GC winner with Aitor González taking the yellow jersey on the very last day from Quick.Step's Michael Rogers.
Although its Tour de France roster has not yet been announced, Euskaltel-Euskadi is determined to play a major part in the outcome of this year's Grand Tour in France - with one man already appointed to be leading the squad: Iban Mayo, 6th on GC in 2003 and winner in L'Alpe-d'Huez that very same year. The strength he showed two year's ago failed him in 2004, when his self-confidence was broken on the pavés of Northern France, losing almost four minutes on his major rivals, before abandoning the race after stage 14 to Nîmes.
So where does he stand this year? Although the Basque hasn't showed any of his capacities yet, placing 30 minutes down of his teammate González in the Tour de Suisse, there could still be some of that climbing firepower in him for the Alpine and Pyrenean stages of the Tour, as his team has changed its tactics. "We've changed our preparation this year," Mayo told Spanish media. "We've sacrificed a lot of things and there have been times where I've had to restrain myself, because we all like to win! I went more unnoticed, but that was the risk we took - what is important is to get to the Tour in good shape. Last year I was very strong at the start and then my form just went down..."
Although there has been no word on General Classification aspirations from the Orange team, even Mayo's climbing is currently far away from what he has shown in his best moments, for example during the Dauphiné 2004. So can Mayo's apparently mediocre performances in Switzerland last week still be switched into high class for the Tour? The Basque himself thinks so ("I think I'm in good shape, I only have to perfect it now. There are still two weeks before the Tour and three before the important stages"), and his team director Julián Gorospe as well. "In the first week, we just have to cross our fingers and hope that nothing bad happens," he said. "I just want Mayo to get to the mountains in the same condition as two years ago - then, he will be with the best."
Recent Euskaltel victories also have taken the pressure off the team's Tour leader, but Mayo himself does not see this as further indication for success. "Now, we don't need a victory at any cost; all seems more relaxed. But last year we also won a lot before the Tour and then [those victories] weren't valued," he continued. "I am more calm, with less pressure because I know that my best moments are yet to come. I like winning and being competitive, but this year I've put that aside for the Tour. It's make-or-break now, impossible to foresee if it'll work. We'll assess it soon enough."