An interview with Igor Astarloa, February 14, 2005
Following a somewhat muted 2004 season, former world road race champion Igor Astarloa is aiming for a return to the big time this year in the colours of the South African/Italian team, Barloworld-Valsir. Shane Stokes caught up with the 28 year-old Spaniard at the team's training camp in Marina San Vito, near Pescara in Italy, where he was training along the coast of the Adriatic in preparation for the new season.
Although Barloworld is undoubtedly a smaller name than those of his other pro teams - Mercatone Uno, Saeco, Cofidis and Lampre - the acquisition of Igor Astarloa, some other new signings and a considerable increase in budget coincides with a greater sense of expectation from team management and riders. Their training camp buzzed with a palpable sense of excitement and optimism; the team are outside the ProTour for now, but has set it sights firmly on the acquisition of one of the UCI's special licences for 2006.
Igor Astarloa is very much part of their plans and, with his name carrying considerable weight, the Team Barloworld-Valsir management are hoping that his presence will help them gain wildcard access to the sport's top events this year. The 2003 world champion is happy with that fact; while he is under a little pressure as the undisputed leader of a growing team requiring some big results, the truth is that without the rainbow jersey, he is anticipating a return to top form.
'Last year was hard, in terms of preparation,' he told Cyclingnews. 'I don't think there is a curse with the jersey. Rather, I was used to doing good training every day, and to rest a lot. But once I had the jersey, that became difficult due to the increased demands which it brought.'
Astarloa started the 2004 season well, leading the Tour of Mediterranean for two days, performing strongly in the Tirreno-Adriatico and finished sixth in Milan-San Remo. However the Cofidis team's self-imposed suspension following doping problems with some of its other riders caused a major hiccup in the Spaniard's programme. He had been targeting a strong ride in the Spring Classics such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but instead found himself sitting on the sidelines and losing valuable racing condition. Cofidis allowed Astarloa to transfer to Lampre, but it proved too difficult to regain full momentum.
'The problems with Cofidis and having to change to Lampre didn't help my chances,' he said. 'The problem with that was that the schedule had to be changed. The Italian races weren't in my programme the previous weeks but all that was changed with Lampre. It wasn't like in Saeco and Mercatone Uno when I was given a programme at the beginning of the year and it remained the same until the end. Things weren't so sure.'
There is more uncertainty this time round due to Team Barloworld-Valsir's reliance on wild-card entries for ProTour races, but Astarloa seems ready for business. Visibly relaxed and appearing in good condition, he told Cyclingnews that he had been training well and was looking forward to the start of the season. It will, he says, take him a few races to get the necessary sharpness, but he is very much looking forward to the new season and redisplaying the class which earned him that impressive victory in Hamilton.
Cyclingnews: It is very early to ask, but how you finding the new team?
Igor Astarloa: Well, it seems good so far. I have been here just three days, but things are fine. There is a problem with the language in that some riders don't speak Italian and I don't speak English, but that is not serious. Everything will be okay! The atmosphere is good, and in time, everything is going to be fine.
CN: How has your training been, and how is your condition at the moment?
IA: It is good! Today, we didn't train because the weather was very bad but yesterday, we did 90 kilometres. At home, I trained very well, because without the world champion's jersey, it is easy to have regular training every day. The year before, I had the jersey and I had a lot to do with the commitments that come with that. There were many days I couldn't train enough because of that.
CN: Last year was quite up and down, without the highlights of 2003. Was that because of the rainbow jersey, or was it because of the Cofidis situation?
IA: First off, I don't think there is a curse with the jersey. Rather, I was used to doing good training every day, and to rest a lot. But once I had the jersey that became difficult due to the increased demands which it brought. Then there were problems with Cofidis, and then having to change to Lampre. The problem with that was that the schedule had to be changed. The Italian races weren't in my programme the previous weeks but all that was changed with Lampre. It wasn't like in Saeco and Mercatone Uno when I was given a programme at the beginning of the year and it remained the same until the end. Things weren't so sure.
That said, it was fantastic to be world champion. Having the rainbow jersey was very special for me and I am glad I wore it.
CN: So now you have had more time to train. Are you confident about the year to come?
IA: Yes, yes. The only thing is that we are not sure to get into the ProTour events but I want to take part in them. I hope we will get into the big one-day races because I like them a lot. I am not a stage race rider, I am one for the Classics.
CN: What races do you want to do well in or, hopefully, win?
IA: I think Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone. I won the last one before but I would like to do so again. The San Sebastian Classic is important because it is my home event. I was second before in it and I hope in the future to win this race.
CN: Do you think the team will have a better chance of getting into big races with your name on board?
IA: It depends on the race. For the old World Cup events, I hope so. I don't know what the situation will be for the big [Grand] tours because I have never been a rider for these races. If I was a rider for three week races, we would probably be a bit more sure [of getting into them]. But hopefully they will see that the team is worth its place.
CN: The World Championships this year are in Madrid. You are Spanish so that will be a good motivation, but is it too flat for you?
IA: It is not completely flat, but it is not hard like Verona either. So it will be harder to make a selection during the race. But we will certainly ride for Freire. He will be the number one, he has won three world championships already, taken medals in others and for these kind of races, he is the best. Valverde will also be protected.
In Canada [Hamilton World's], Freire wasn't feeling so good so I was made the leader during the race. Valverde was second leader and it worked out well for us. The Spanish team is very unique and the world championships is a race for them. We always prepare well for it.
CN: There has recently been talk that Spanish national coach Paco Antequera may be replaced after changes within the Spanish Federation. What do you think about that?
IA: I don't know very much about it, but he told us in Verona that he wasn't sure that he would remain in charge, but we said that we were happy with him. I think he was a big part of the reason for our success.
CN: This year, you hope to get into the ProTour races and do well. Longer-term, what do you want to achieve over the next few years?
IA: Well, the most important thing is to have a big team, a team that will build and grow so that we can get into the ProTour. Getting into the big races is important.
For me personally, the most important races for me are the big one day events and also the five- or six-day races like Tirreno-Adriatico. I can do something there. In Saeco, I had my time, my races, while Simoni had his ones. I can't do everything, I am not the only rider on the team. But in the races suited to me, I will do my best in them.
CN: Do you feel more or less pressure this year? Last year you were world champion; this year, you are the big leader on a team trying to build up to a ProTour licence.
IA: I am calmer now. I can do a good level of training without the commitments of the jersey. My condition is good like the other years, but before I can win I will have to race hard. It will be necessary to suffer a bit before I reap the benefits.
CN: Are you confident that this team can grow into a ProTour team?
IA: I think so, yes. We will have Emanuele Bombini on board and he has a lot of experience. He was responsible for one of the best teams in cycling. I spoke with him about the team and I think there will be a good future for it. But it is important to be patient as we can't expect to be the world's top team next year! Everything has to build steadily.