Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez has plotted a completely different approach to the season next year, with the Spaniard to target week-long stage races and the Tour de France, rather than the emphasis he placed on the Classics, Vuelta and World Championships in 2009.
The 31-year-old Euskaltel-Euskadi captain finished fourth in Flèche Wallonne and was second overall in the Vuelta a España, but has decided to shake things up a bit and structure things differently.
“Last year the team talked amongst ourselves and we saw that the Vuelta a España had a course that pleased us. We also had a World Championships that was very hard,” a relaxed, friendly Sánchez told Cyclingnews on Tuesday evening. “I believe that the Vuelta España is the best preparation for the World Championships. That meant that we decided I should focus on the first part of the season and on the end of it, leaving out the Tour.
“This coming year, the aims will be different – I want to have a good early part of the season, and a good Tour de France. As for the Vuelta, I don’t know yet.”
Aside from trying something new and chasing a greater number of victories in 2010 – this season was characterised by near-misses in some very big events – Sánchez’s decision is also due to the parcours of the Worlds in Geelong, Australia.
“I think it is going to be a World Championship for sprinters,” he said, explaining why preparation for that race won’t shape his season like it did this year. “For riders like myself, it will be more difficult to win one like that. We’ll have to see.”
Sánchez finished just 55 seconds behind Alejandro Valverde in the Vuelta and could perhaps have taken the Maillot oro to Madrid had he not lost time early on. He crashed on stage eight and the following day conceded 49 seconds, the bulk of his final deficit. He said afterwards that he felt below par due to his injuries, and that it affected his riding in the tough finale.
Providing Valverde’s links to Operación Puerto don’t lead to a suspension, the Caisse d’Epargne leader is expected to head to the Tour de France as one of the contenders. Sánchez could therefore fit into the same bracket, yet he plays down any talk that he could be fighting for the win.
“No, there are riders who are stronger than me,” he said, dismissing with a laugh any suggestion that he could be aiming for the top step of the podium in Paris. “There’s Carlos Sastre, [Alberto] Contador, [Lance] Armstrong, [Andy] Schleck. I want to improve upon my sixth place of 2008, and try to win a stage. I can have hopes of doing that.”
Aiming for a strong Tour means that he has tweaked his programme in the lead up to the race. “I’ll do the Volta a Algarve, Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Dauphiné [Libéré] and the Tour,” he said. Fourth in Flèche Wallone doesn’t entice him to target the Spring Classics, even though other Tour riders like the Schlecks will do so. “In principle, I don’t think I’ll ride those races. I want to prepare very well for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, be very strong there, and then get ready for the Tour.”
Near misses in 2009
On the eve of the launch of the 2010 Vuelta a España, Sánchez, race organisers Unipublic and former Vuelta champions such as 1961 winner Angelino Soler were relaxing in the lobby of the Barceló Renacimiento hotel on the outskirts of Seville. There was a good buzz in the air, with the opportunity being used by people to catch up after some time apart.
Sánchez was moving around, taking to different people and having a laugh. Tall, somewhat frail looking and with surprisingly thin legs, non-cycling residents in the hotel would hardly have identified him as an Olympic champion. But appearances deceive; in 2009 he underlined his status as one of the best riders in the world, fighting for the victory in events as diverse as the Vuelta a España, the Giro di Lombardia, the World Championships, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
It was, he says, a good season, and yet there’s also the hint of regret. “I was happy in that I was a very consistent rider throughout the whole year, but I also didn’t take many victories,” he said. “A winning rider like myself likes to take more victories – I was second in the Vuelta, fourth in the World Championships, third in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, third in the UCI ProTour, fourth in Flèche Wallonne. I’m not satisfied with that aspect.”
His Olympic title in Beijing proves that he knows how to win big. Was it the case that he started to feel pressure in 2009, and that caused him to choke and miss out? “No," he said, explaining that it there were other reasons. “In the end, I think that if you don’t win, it is because others were stronger than you were, and also that the circumstances of the race were not in your favour. You need luck as well. What I can say is that I am content in that I was up there and had the option to win. That was good.”
His Vuelta performance is an example of how things can play out, fortune favouring one rider over another. “If you look at both the mountains and the time trials there, I was probably the strongest of the favourites,” he said. “It was the case that an inopportune crash stopped me from being closer to the win.”
In recent weeks Sánchez has begun to ramp up his training. He’s doing rides of three to three and a half hours in length; not a massive load, but he’ll continue to build gradually and work towards his first stage races.
He and the rest of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team had a get-together at the Bay of Biscay earlier this month, and he said that he likes what he saw.
“The atmosphere is very good. There is new blood in the team – we have added guys such as Roman Sicard, the World under-23 Champion, and Beñat Intxausti from Fuji-Servetto. There are some new young riders and we have extra motivation this year…we are going to try use that to get some good results.”
He’s particularly impressed by Sicard. “I think that he’s a future ‘incredible’,” he said, smiling. “He is a very good person, and a very good rider too. He is a very nice, very open person. A World Champion, but also someone who is very relaxed.”