T-Mobile is sending an experienced nine-man roster, built around Erik Zabel, to the Vuelta a España, which starts this Saturday in Granada. Zabel, riding his last Grand Tour in the magenta colours, is the team's designated sprinter and points jersey contender. It will also be an interesting chance to see mooted future team mates Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi go head-to-head in the sprinters stages. With Stuart O'Grady, Oscar Freire and Robbie McEwen all missing the Vuelta for different reasons, it could be a straight Petacchi-Zabel battle for the blue jersey, which Zabel has won three times already. Both men will also use the race as build-up for the upcoming World Championships in Madrid, over a course designed to favour sprinters.
Behind Zabel will be veterans Rolf Aldag, Andre Korff and Daniele Nardello, who will provide invaluable support because of their experience. Spanish riders Paco Lara and Oscar Sevilla give the roster some Iberian flavour. The two climbing specialists have spent the last few weeks building up their national tour and Sevilla, Vuelta runner-up in 2001 and fourth in 2002, has what it takes to challenge for a podium place.
Two T-Mobile rookies will also get their first taste of Grand Tour action in Spain. Riding alongside Zabel are neo-pro's Marcus Burghardt and young Austrian Bernhard Kohl. 22 year-old Burghardt already demonstrated at the Tour of Flanders that he has what it takes. "Marcus will get another sniff of ProTour action here, and tactically, he will have carte blanche to try out things here," said T-Mobile's sports director Frans van Looy. "It is another chance for him to gather experience, as well as supporting our captains. It is always something really special for such a young cyclist to ride such a big race."
The ProTour status elevated the Giro d'Italia to a higher level, and it's expected that it will do the same for the Vuelta, which has traditionally been the terrain for mainly the Spanish teams. The Spanish riders are still likely to dominate the big mountain stages, but with 20 ProTour teams in action, the race is bound to have a more international flavour than last year, when no non-Spaniard featured in the top ten and only two non-Spaniards managed to break the top 25.
Wild card entries for the 21 stage Tour have gone to local Continental outfits Comunidad Valenciana and Relax. The race kicks-off with a prologue in Granada and then takes the peloton northwards from Andalusia to the Pyrenees, before winding up in front of the Camp Nou stadium in Madrid on September 18.
Full T-Mobile riders: Rolf Aldag (Ger), Marcus Burghardt (Ger), Andreas Klier (Ger), André Korff (Ger), Bernhard Kohl (Aut), Daniele Nardello (Ita), Paco Lara (Spa), Oscar Sevilla (Spa) and Erik Zabel (Ger).