The Shack aiming to prove Vuelta omission was a major mistake
Haimar Zubeldia's prologue victory at the Tour de l'Ain was not only a personal milestone for the Basque rider who had not won for a decade, but also maintained RadioShack's semi-official campaign to demonstrate that their non-selection for the Vuelta a España was a ridiculous mistake.
Zubeldia's success was his first since a time trial victory in the 2000 edition of the Bicicleta Vasca helped him take the overall title in that race. In the subsequent decade, there may not have been any wins for the Basque to celebrate, but he has established himself as one of the most dependable grand tour performers in the sport.
Three times a top 10 finisher at the Tour de France, the 33-year-old Zubeldia has no outstanding weapon as a rider, a characteristic underlined by his lack of victories. However, as a strong climber, a very good time triallist and a canny tactician, the former Euskaltel team leader has long been a very solid performer, particularly in major stage races.
It was a surprise when he opted to end his career-long commitment to Euskaltel in 2008 and join first Astana and then RadioShack. But during that period his new teams have taken advantage of his ability and experience by turning him into a super-domestique, supporting the likes of Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden.
Although this new role means that Zubeldia rarely has the responsibility of leadership that he relished during his time with Euskaltel, he insists that he's enjoyed the switch. "I am not a winner. My job in the team is to help our grand tour riders in the mountains. I always kept working hard. This victory is a nice compensation for my hard work," he said after his prologue victory in France.
Zubeldia also made pointed reference to his team's non-selection for his national tour, which Vuelta boss Javier Guillén said in mid-June had been made for "sporting reasons".
"It is a pity and a shame that the Tour de France's best team is not invited to the Tour of Spain, but we will show ourselves in the other races. This is already a good beginning," said Zubeldia, who aims to go and win the Tour de l'Ain to make a further point to Guillén, whose decision to overlook RadioShack surely needs further explanation.
The assumption must be that "sporting reasons" relates less to RadioShack's performance on the road that, for example, saw them take the team prize at the Tour de France, and more to stories surrounding the investigation into alleged doping within the US Postal team led by Armstrong and managed by RadioShack boss Johan Bruyneel.
Bruyneel revealed that Guillén had told him "that the other teams [we selected] offered him better options on a sporting level," and added, "I had to ask him to repeat it as I could not believe this but I heard right: we didn't offer a good enough team. I cannot accept or understand this decision. With Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden, Chris Horner and Jani Brajkovic we had four potential Vuelta winners on the roster we sent to Unipublic."
Spanish riders Zubeldia and Markel Irizar would also have been in RadioShack's Vuelta team, as would upcoming Portuguese stage race performer Tiago Machado. With several more talented riders in contention, RadioShack would certainly have been one of the strongest teams at the Vuelta, if not the strongest.
Unfortunately for Zubeldia and his teammates, that strength will have to be shown at smaller races like the Tour de l'Ain, where winning performances are very unlikely to distract from the federal investigation into Armstrong and the US Postal team.
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