Anyone sceptical of Rubén Plaza's abilities as the 38-year-old prepares to start his 13th Grand Tour this week at the Giro d'Italia could lay those doubts to rest late last month when he won the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon with a 50km solo escape on the final stage. The result was a near replica of the way he won the race in 2013, and it was a clear signal that Plaza is ready.
Coming off three years with the Australian Orica team (now Mitchelton-Scott) and five years with Lampre and Movistar before that, the amicable Spaniard signed with the Israeli Cycling Academy team to bolster its stage-racing prowess and to make it a more tempting wildcard possibility for the Grand Tours. Now, with the Giro invitation in hand, Plaza appears to be on target for his new team's biggest race of the year and what could possibly be his final Grand Tour.
Plaza's last Grand Tour stage wins came in 2015 at the Tour and then the Vuelta, adding to his individual time trial stage win at the Vuelta in 2005, and he knows this might be his last chance to bag a stage at the Giro.
"Yes, but it's not easy. It's not easy," he said when Cyclingnews asked about his desire to add a stage victory during this year's Giro.
Speaking from the high-performance centre near the top of Sierra Nevada, Spain, during an altitude camp with his teammates last month, Plaza was relaxed and jovial as he introduced a journalist to his wife and son, who had joined him in the sprawling centre's coffee shop. He wasted little time laying out the big job ahead, however, as he was about to start his third consecutive Giro.
"When you have won important stages in the biggest races, when you try to do it again you understand how difficult it is," he said. "After the victory in the Tour de France I made it into a lot of breakaways in other races, but I didn't win. So you start to realise how hard it is to win. I don't know if it will be my last opportunity to win at the Giro, but it's a dream, and it's my main goal of the season. I'm going to try."
Plaza's Israel Cycling Academy team has been vocal about its desire to make a big splash with their first Grand Tour invitation – and one that starts in Jerusalem, no less – and Plaza would like to deliver. He'll be a protected rider, along with Ben Hermans and Krists Neilands, waiting for a transition stage that suits his massive engine.
At Leon, Plaza escaped alone with 50km remaining in the 165km third stage from Segovia to Avila, holding off a chase from Eduard Prades (Euskadi Basque Country-Murias) and Carlos Barbero (Movistar) by 46 seconds. He seized the overall win by 32 seconds over Barbero. Plaza sees himself winning a similar stage, with a few moderate climbs along the way, at the Giro.
"To enjoy the race, for me, I would go for the hardest stages," he said. "But I must try during the transition stages, too, because my goal is to try to win. In other teams, in other seasons – the last two seasons at the Giro, for example – I got into a few breakaways on the toughest stages. But in those breakaways I was always with three or four of the strongest climbers – too strong for me. So I think that this year I'll try to get away on one of the easier stages."
Any general classification goals are out of the question for the former Spanish champion who has previously finished sixth at the Vuelta and 10th at the Tour de France, in 2005 and 2010, respectively.
"If you are up there in the GC, you usually have to use up all your energy to try to be in the top 10 or 20 at the end," he said. "It's better to save yourself to try to win a stage in the second half of the race. Plus nobody remembers that I was 10th at the Tour de France or sixth in the Vuelta a Espana – only that I won stages at the Tour and the Vuelta.
"I know that if I'm in the best shape possible, and if I'm lucky, I can maybe make the top 10 or top 15, but the goal is to try to win a stage. Besides, it's more fun because the focus every day on not losing time is too stressful for me. To be in the top 10 is very difficult. To be in the top 20 is easier, but nobody is going to remember you."