By Hedwig Kröner
As the season begins in Australia with the Tour Down Under, the first important European races aren't very far away anymore. In France, the cycling year begins with the GP d'Ouverture in Marseille on February 3, followed by the Tour Méditerranéen and the more famous 'race to the sun', Paris-Nice from March 9-16. Last year, the event organised by Tour de France owner ASO was scored by Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), who later won the French Grand Tour.
The young Spaniard's goals now obviously lying later in the season, Contador will be using Paris-Nice for training only this year. But who could then be an overall contender in the South of France this spring? Amongst others, this will be Caisse d'Epargne's Luis León Sánchez, who won a stage in the 2007 race (stage 6 to Cannes) and finished third on General Classification, 42 seconds behind his former Liberty Seguros team-mate.
Sánchez confirmed this at the team Caisse d'Epargne presentation in Paris last week, before flying out to Australia to compete in the Tour Down Under.
"My first objective this season is Paris-Nice," the 24 year-old told Cyclingnews. "I want to have a strong start in the Tour Méditerranéen, continue with Valencia [Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana - ed.] and then Paris-Nice. I hope to be able to use my opportunities there. Later in the season, I hope to do the Tour de France to help Oscar (Pereiro) and Alejandro (Valverde). They told me if everything works out well in Paris-Nice, I'll do the Tour to see what I can do there."
It will not be the first participation in the Tour for Sánchez, as he already raced in the event in 2005 with his former team Liberty Seguros. "A very nice memory," he said. Still, the young Spaniard dreams about Paris-Nice as a realistic goal - one that would make his 2008 season a success. "I would be very satisfied if I won Paris-Nice," Sánchez added. "Having finished third and won a stage there last year, I think I can try for the overall victory. It's a beautiful race; it would be very important to me to win it."
Asked if he thought the victory in the 'race to the sun' could be an indicator for further triumph, as in the case of Contador, Sánchez was reluctant to compare himself to his former team-mate. "Contador is on another level," he said. "Last year, he demonstrated that he can be a great champion. Only very few riders can claim such a bright future for themselves as he can. We get on well; he is one and a half years older than me. With a lot of work, I hope to improve my abilities, too, but reaching his level will be very difficult."