The Caisse d’Epargne team has no less than five potential successors to Alejandro Valverde at the Vuelta a España. While the defending champion is banned after being implicated in Operacion Puerto, one of the candidates for the leadership is another 30-year-old Spaniard whose career has been damaged by the scandal of 2006, but Rubén Plaza promised that his best has yet to come.
Plaza is the hometown rider at the Vuelta this weekend, as he was born in Alcoy where Sunday’s stage will end. He’s currently lying 6th overall, just 1:15 back. “The situation on GC is very good for us now, we have five riders in the top 20” Plaza told Cyclingnews. With Marzio Bruseghin in 5th position, Rigoberto Uran in 11th, Giro d’Italia runner-up David Arroyo in 16th and their most famous rider Luis Leon Sanchez in 18th, the team that will become Movistar next year has many cards to play.
“Personally I have better form here at the Vuelta than at the Tour de France,” said Plaza, who finished 12th overall in Paris and fought hard for the teams’ classification, which was ultimately won by the veterans of RadioShack. “My motivation is also higher now because I have the world championships in mind, although I don’t know yet if I’ll ride the time trial or the road race or both.”
Plaza has twice been Spanish road race champion, in 2003 and 2009, but he has never won the time trial title, despite finishing on the podium five times in the past five years. Spain has three riders from Caisse d’Epargne competing for two spots in the race against the clock in Melbourne: Sanchez, Plaza and José Ivan Gutierrez.
At the 2005 Vuelta a España, Plaza finished second to Denis Menchov in the first time trial and won the second one. He was Spain’s up and coming rider five years ago. “But then Operacion Puerto ruined my career,” he told Cyclingnews at the Vuelta. His name appeared on a list of 14 riders from the Communidad Valenciana team whose doctor was Eufemiano Fuentes, but all of them were cleared by a Spanish court on July 28, 2006.
“Rubén was just in the wrong team at the wrong time,” stated the management of Caisse d’Epargne when they welcomed him back. Eusebio Unzue actually did that twice. Plaza had turned pro with iBanesto in 2000 before joining Kelme in 2004. He rode for Caisse d’Epargne in 2007 but the sponsor – a French bank – wrote him off in spite of the statement from the Spanish justice. The organisation of the Giro d’Italia also requested that Plaza be removed from the start list in 2007.
Plaza was a leading protester on the eve of the 2006 Spanish championship when the riders decided to go on strike just after passing the start line. There was no race that day. After being sidelined in 2007, he had no choice but join Portuguese teams. He rode for Benfica in 2008 and Liberty Seguros in 2009. Discretely, Unzue brought him back to Caisse d’Epargne this year as time has made people forget about Operacion Puerto. But it was still a surprise to see him lining up at the Dauphiné with his Spanish champion’s jersey in June. The French press didn’t go after him at the Tour de France either.
“I think the best has yet to come in my career,” said the 30-year-old from Alicante. “I hope to make the top five of a Grand Tour very soon.” Plaza has a contract with the Movistar team for the next two seasons.