By Shane Stokes
Russian Denis Menchov starts the Vuelta a Castilla y León today knowing the race gives him an opportunity to measure his condition against Giro d'Italia rival Lance Armstrong plus several others.
"For now it is perhaps not crucial [to finish high in the general classification in Spain], but it is also good to try to compare," he said, speaking to Cyclingnews on Sunday evening. "For example, I can see how my form compares to that of Armstrong prior to the Giro, because the Giro is not so far away. It is always good to have that chance."
Along with Alberto Contador, Menchov has already taken an overall stage race victory this season and so has a psychological edge over most of the other candidates for the Tour de France. Just over two weeks ago the Rabobank competitor won the Vuelta a Murcia, beating Rubén Plaza (Liberty Seguros) by 20 seconds and his own teammate Pieter Weening by 35.
Menchov now lines up with Contador, Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer (all Astana), Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) and others in the five day Castilla y León, which runs until Friday.
It features two flat stages, two mountain-top finishes and a time trial, and thus gives a good opportunity for these riders to compare their form to those they will be battling in France in July.
His performance earlier this month suggests that Menchov should be in contention this week. "I think my form is okay for now. At this point of the season it is on schedule. I was a little surprised by the final result in Murcia, because it is always hard to win. But I knew before that I was in good condition.
"Although I didn't do anything special during the winter [to be in form early], I did good training and I had a good feeling on the bike... I felt comfortable. It was more or less the same programme as before, but every year is different."
Should he ride well in the 2.1-ranked event, the five-day race should serve as both a confidence builder plus a stepping stone to bigger targets this year. "Normally this is part of my preparation for the big goals, the Giro and the Tour. I feel good. There will be a nice test in the time trial, it is a very good one of 28 kilometres. Then there are two interesting stages in the mountains."
Stage one takes the riders 168.3 kilometres from Paredes de Nava to Baltanás. A bunch sprint is expected.