Liberty increase pressure on PostalClose
Floyd Landis kept the gold jersey for another day at the Alto de Aitana on Sunday, but the signs arePICTURE COURTESY LAVUELTA.COM Although Floyd Landis held on to the leader's gold jersey at the Vuelta's first major summit finish on Sunday afternoon, the indications were on the Alto de Aitana that the Pennsylvanian and his US Postal team-mates are going to struggle to hold off a host of Spanish challengers at the summits still to come, starting with today's finish at the Xorret de Cati. On a day when Landis' lead actually increased - because his second-placed team-mate Manuel Beltran came in a few seconds behind him - the paradox was the US Postal team leader for this last major tour of the season appeared to be in a weaker position than at the start of the day. Most of this was due to excellent performances from Liberty Seguros duo Roberto Heras and Isidro Nozal. The former may have finished second to the opportunistic Leonardo Piepoli on the summit of the Aitana to boost his hopes of a successful defence of his title, but it was the latter who has taken most of the plaudits in the Spanish press this morning after riding much of the competition out of the picture with a staggeringly strong performance on the day's last mountain. Heras was disappointed to miss out on the stage win, but delighted to have gained time on all of his main rivals for the overall title. "Piepoli was very strong and with 300 metres left he attacked very strongly and it was impossible to catch him, but I'm still happy with the time I have gained," said Heras, who paid tribute to the work Nozal had done for him. "He rode incredibly well today and it was thanks to him that I got time back." Nozal told AS that "at six kilometres from the finish Roberto asked me to eliminate as many of his rivals as I possibly could and so I went to the front and gave it all I'd got." Seemingly spent when Heras attacked in his own right, Nozal recovered to finish third, just six seconds behind his team leader. "I eased off a bit, but still felt strong and so I did the last few kilometres at full bore," said the Cantabrian rider. Those performances must have pleased Liberty team boss Manolo Saiz, who found himself under fire from local fans angered by his attacks on CV-Kelme manager Vicente Belda, whose team is based in nearby Alicante. 'Saiz, you are the black hand of cycling' and 'Saiz, you are a cancer' were two of the less complimentary banners billowing on the Aitana, although Saiz later pointed out that most fans had been civil towards him. Saiz believes that Nozal is now a better rider than the one who lost last year's Vuelta in the final mountain time trial to Heras, then riding for US Postal. "He is climbing much better than in 2003," Saiz told AS. "He has lost weight and this is helping him on the climbs. Nozal rode well not only because of the work he did for the team, but also because he showed the capacity to recover and then attack himself." As well as praise from team-mates and rivals alike, Nozal's performance was also recognised by Spanish national selector Paco Antequera, who announced he has picked the Liberty rider to compete in the time trial at the world championships next month alongside Illes Balears' Ivan Gutierrez. As for stage winner Piepoli, he described the Aitana victory, his first in a major tour, as the best of his career. "I am 32 now and I thought it was never going to happen, and for that reason it's a fantastic victory for me," said the Italian. He admitted he had purposely ridden conservatively in the days beforehand so that he would be far enough down on time to be no threat to the overall contenders in the hope this would allow him to win a stage. Ultimately, this paid off as he was fresh enough to stay with the Liberty duo and did not threaten their overall hopes.