By Hedwig Kröner
Despite lacklustre pre-Tour testing at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, Liberty Seguros' directeur sportif Manolo Saiz is optimistic about his Tour de France roster and the outcome of the French Grand Tour. The legendary Spaniard believes that his top man, Roberto Heras, is in better shape and more motivated than he has ever been.
"I think our team is fine, really," he said. "We've made a step last month, although, of course, the fact that the team didn't ride well at the Dauphiné made us all a little nervous. But the reality is that we're on track. The team has been training very well in Cantabria and although we lack reference to our rivals, I think our team is going to the Tour in good shape."
After the training camp in Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Saiz decided on his Tour de France selection, headed by Roberto Heras. "Roberto knows that it's one of his last chances of riding a good Tour, so I think he will do well," Saiz continued, speaking about his team captain. "He is in better shape and more motivated than he has ever been."
The three time-Vuelta a España winner himself is also feeling confident. "It's true that we were very bad [at the Dauphiné - ed.] but that didn't matter too much because there was still one month to go before the mountain stages of the Tour de France," Heras said. "I think we will arrive at the start [of the Tour de France - ed.] in good condition. This team has the quality to be in front."
There is still some doubt as to the capacities of Joseba Beloki, who hasn't been able to return to his prior class after the bad crash he suffered during the Tour 2003. "But I can see him getting better every day," team director Saiz said about Beloki. "One mustn't forget that he has achieved three Tour-podiums. He will be a very important pillar of our team. I hope he will come back to his old level!"
Heras, meanwhile, is aiming exactly at what Beloki has already done. "I want to play an important part in the race," he continued. "I've been fighting for the podium for five years now, but the luck I had in the Vuelta always went missing at the Tour. I know I'm capable of it." With Joseba Beloki, Alberto Contador, Allan Davis, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, Jörg Jaksche, Luis León Sanchez, Marcos Serrano and Ángel Vicioso, Heras can count on a strong team. "It may not be the strongest for the team time trial, but it's well-balanced and still good enough for a good Tour de France," Saiz thinks. In the end, it is upon the team captain to make a difference. "Armstrong, no doubt, is the great favourite. Then comes Ullrich and after him there are riders like Mayo, Basso, Heras and so many other aspirants," Saiz continued.
Heras, who knows Armstrong well, also believes that the American might be on his way to a seventh victory. "At the Dauphiné, he wasn't super but he has enough experience to know that feeling well and riding up front was more than enough at that time. So the cards are his to play now, but the Tour begins July 2 and everything that has been done before doesn't matter anymore."
In less than one week, a first fitness evaluation will have taken place: the first of two time trials at the 'Grande Boucle' on Saturday. Saiz knows that it will very much influence the development of the race. "On one hand, it will make the first week less dangerous, because time gaps will be bigger, but it also means that we could see the same leader from the first to the last day," he said. "For riders like Roberto Heras this parcours is good, because there will no be other time trial until the end and, therefore, the climbers will get to the mountains having lost less time that usually. Riders like Armstrong, on the other hand, will have to manoeuvre differently than in recent years."