By Jean-François Quénet in Adelaide, Australia
A former winner of the Tour Down Under - and the only one to have done so while he was still Under 23 in 2005 - Spain's Luis León Sánchez concluded his trip to Adelaide on a high note with a strong counter-attack in Willunga Hill (stage five), lacking only the cooperation from Cofidis' David Moncoutié, and a final breakaway during the Adelaide criterium on the final stage. Together with his team-mate from Caisse d'Épargne Nicolas Portal, he rode so hard in the last five-man group of escapees that he forced Allan Davis' partners from UniSA to a terribly difficult chase, fighting for the overall victory.
"Oh, that was just a preparation for Paris-Nice!" Sánchez laughed afterwards. He didn't exactly intend to create such a trouble inside the sprinters' teams. He added: "I also wanted to see how I had recovered from my efforts on Saturday. It was a very positive test indeed. I have half of the kilometres of training I had last year in my legs at the same time but I feel very good."
For the third time in four years, Sánchez started his season in South Australia. "This is what I prefer to do," he said. "I came here one week before the race. I rode four, five or six hours every day. It's a much more efficient training than in Europe and the Tour Down Under is very profitable for building up my condition. It's worth coming so far. It's also a different atmosphere from what we are used to in Europe. I'd say the enthusiasm is higher in Australia. People cheer at us more than European fans do."
After the Tour Down Under, Sánchez will ride the Tour of Mediterranean and the Tour of Valencia prior to Paris-Nice, which is his main goal for the early part of the 2008 season. He made no mystery about it: "I want to win this race."
Paris-Nice was an historical turning point for Spanish cycling last year when Alberto Contador won the overall classification, which put him on the ramp towards the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. In fact, he overshadowed Sánchez and there was even a bit of a controversy when the two of them agreed to a pact on their way to Cannes in stage six, but Sánchez attacked for the stage win under the instruction of his directeur sportif, while Contador had to wait for the last day for taking the lead off Davide Rebellin.
"There was no problem between Alberto and myself after that," Sánchez clarified. "We spoke that night and we had another chat in August. Our girlfriends also speak to each other regularly. We have spent five years together in the same team (Liberty Seguros) and now we have parted ways but we remain good friends."
The two jewels last produced by Manolo Saiz before he got arrested in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal have had very different careers since one of them moved to Discovery Channel and the other one went to Caisse d'Épargne. Sánchez was affected by a virus last year and he didn't get selected for the Tour de France.
"The approach of our career plans by our respective directors is totally opposed," Sánchez explained. "Contador went to a team where there was a gap to be filled up after the Lance Armstrong era. They pushed him to become a great rider straight away. I am with people who have a different philosophy. This is the former Banesto team. The directors keep telling me I have to work hard before getting results on a long term. I had done the Tour de France when I was 20 years old with Liberty Seguros, but that was for the experience only. [Caisse d'Épargne's directeur sportif] Eusebio [Unzué] thought I was too young for doing it last year. Now if everything goes well, I'll ride it again this year. But at the end of the day, the directors chose who's got the best form at the right time. There are nine spots for a group of 13 or 14 riders. I know I'm in one of the best teams in the world for the Tour de France with Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro."
Sánchez is also aware that he rides for a French sponsor. "That's fine for me because most of the best races in the world are in France," he said. "I have a much bigger attraction for the Tour de France than for the Vuelta. I also like Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné quite a lot. And I'll do Paris-Roubaix as well this year."
Although he keeps saying he has to work hard before talking about his ambitions, Sánchez is formatted for winning the Tour de France one day but he has no problem going for the Flemish classics as well. "I don't necessarily have a great memory of the Tour of Flanders since I broke my scaphoid there in 2005, but I'll do it again and also Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix in support to my big friend Joaquin Rojas, who loves these races. We are always together. We both come from Murcia. Spanish riders are no longer allergic to the classics. We follow the examples of Oscar Freire and Juan Antonio Flecha and we go for it as well."
Aged 24, the gifted climber and time triallist is the Spanish rider the most similar to Miguel Indurain since the five-times winner of the Tour de France retired eleven years ago. The two got to know each other during the Tour Down Under where Indurain was the guest of honour. "He still impresses me a lot," Sánchez said with great respect. "I was 10 or 12 years old when I watched him winning the Tour on TV. I had met him twice briefly before the Tour Down Under. We spoke more here but he didn't exactly give me any advice apart from learning my job before becoming a champion. But I have listened very well to his interviews and I learn from what he says. I'm not like him, I still have to discover everything."
Basically, Sánchez is on the same career plan as Indurain at Caisse d'Épargne, where the staff hasn't changed much over the years after the sponsorship from Banesto under the management of José Miguel Echavarri. These directors like to take their time for breeding a champion. Contador might have taken the post-Armstrong quick opportunity, but Sánchez hasn't said his last word inside Spain's new generation of Tour de France contenders.