While four former winners of the Santos Tour Down Under have made their way back to Adelaide, not counting Allan Davis (2009) who returned as a public relation officer one year after retiring from professional cycling, Luis Leon Sanchez - winner in 2005 - is aiming for his second win.
Ten years after winning the race, the Spaniard from Mula is ambitious again as he returns to the WorldTour with Astana after one year at Caja Rural following a fall out with Belkin.
“They’ve been very good to me,” Sanchez said of the Pamplona-based team that backed him for winning the King of the Mountains competition at the Vuelta a España, “But for a rider, the most important league to be part of remains the WorldTour.”
Ten years ago the Tour Down Under wasn’t yet a WorldTour race [ed. only since 2008] but Sanchez remains emotional when he walks back into the lobby of Adelaide’s Hilton hotel and looks at his framed picture with his then teammate Alberto Contador following him en route to Old Willunga where they came first and second with Davis and Javier Ramirez, all from Liberty Seguros, completing the top four on stage 5.
“I was 21 years old”, he remembers. “I came to Australia with a great motivation and the biggest desire to conquer the world. It was January. I knew I had trained well at home. We arrived two weeks prior to the race and we were a young team. We had developed together as the U23 feeder team of ONCE. We knew each other really well. Alberto was coming out of a big crash [at the 2004 Vuelta a Asturias]. He has said on several occasions that the Tour Down Under has been the most important race of his career, his first come back. Ten years have passed, things have happened, we’ve enjoyed some of them, others we didn’t but we can’t look behind. All I know is that ten years on, I’m here and my motivation is still the same.”
In six participations to the Australian event, Sanchez also came second to Simon Gerrans in 2006 and to André Greipel in 2010. He has seen the race evolving from a sprinters’ favourite to a course for puncheurs or even climbers with the uphill finish atop Willunga Hill on stage 5.
“The course suits me better now than ten years ago”, the Spaniard said. “It’s not only because of Willunga Hill but also the other uphill finishes on shorter climbs. The race is more attractive for the riders now but also for the spectators. But it’s also a better race for Cadel [Evans] or Richie [Porte]. As usual, the Australians are the favourites. I’m in a pretty good shape and I love this race but as I come from Europe it’s impossible to make a comparison with those guys who have the advantage of having trained here. It’s also a question of dosing the efforts throughout the season.”
Sanchez is expected to lead Astana at Paris-Nice, a race in which he particularly performed during his years at Caisse d’Epargne: 3rd in 2007, 5th in 2008, winner in 2009, 2nd in 2010.
“Astana wants to win the WorldTour by teams”, he said. “As the cycling year is very long, it’s good to have goals for different riders, for Fabio Aru at the Giro and Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour, but also the cobblestoned classics with Lars Boom, etc. Everyone in the team has his chance to have his moment.”
Following the first part of the season in which he’ll look for results for himself, Sanchez will switch to a support role alongside Aru as he’ll tackle the Giro d’Italia for the first time in his 12-year long professional career.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Giro but it’s an unknown for me”, said the 31-year-old. “I just hope it won’t be too cold.” Hailing from the southern Spanish province of Murcia, he feels more comfortable with the weather conditions in Adelaide with temperatures over 30°C to begin with.
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