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Wednesday's launch of the 2006 Vuelta a Espa¤a was a strange affair, with doubts still hanging over the identity of the winner of this year's race following Roberto Heras's positive dope test, which only added to the gloom after 2004's edition of the race, after which Tyler Hamilton and Santiago Perez were found guilty of blood doping.
Already struggling to make an impact as one of the sport's leading events in the face of the all-powerful Tour de France and the resurgent Giro d'Italia, the Vuelta currently has little to celebrate. A video presentation of this year's race featured few pictures of Heras, and none of him in the leader's gold jersey. Much of the presentation was given over to discussion of doping, with Spanish minister of sport Jaime Lissavetzky asking "cyclists and their teams to show the same rigour, cleanliness and innovation that the race organisers are demonstrating".
The president of race organisers Unipublic, Ignacio Ayuso, called doping "big black mark hanging over cycling" and added that his team would have zero tolerance in all future doping cases. He also congratulated the laboratory that was responsible for testing Heras's samples and former Liberty Seguros team president Manuel Pi¤era, who quit the team on Tuesday saying "things were happening that I don't agree with".
Pi¤era's resignation led to the surprise appearance of Liberty team director Manolo Saiz, who came hotfoot from his team's pre-season training camp in Cantabria. Saiz refused to say anything specific about Pi¤era's decision, but said they were still friends.
Saiz did admit that he will have to take on some of Pi¤era's tasks in the year to come and will not be managing his team on the road at all three of the major tours. Saiz, one of the architects of the ProTour, also showed he is very much on the side of the International Cycling Union in their ongoing conflict with the major tours over the season-long series when he declared: "They call them the grand tours because they have the highest number of stages, not because they are more important."
In which case, Saiz will no doubt pull his strongest team from the Tour de France and send them to the Tour of Austria instead.
The riders also got a look-in eventually, with most describing what looks a slightly easier race than usual as one for the climbers - so no change there. Alejandro Valverde said "it suits my characteristics because there is quite a lot of climbing and the time trials are quite short". He added that "I have still not decided against taking part in the Vuelta."
Francisco Mancebo, who will be end up in third place for the second year running if Heras is stripped of victory, admitted "I've got a chance. Although my [Ag2r] team is French, there will be five Spaniards in it. My first objective is the Tour, but even if I win it I will not miss this challenge."
Denis Menchov, who will be declared the winner of the 2005 Vuelta if Heras loses the title, is another focusing on the Tour and not certain if he will ride the Vuelta. "The victory will go down on my palmars as the most important one so far, but I don't feel like the winner, perhaps because I didn't finish on top of the podium," said the Russian.
Carlos Sastre, who finished a place behind Menchov, said he was "very satisfied with the course. The Vuelta means a lot to me and alongside the Tour de France it's my main objective for next season. The course is very tough and there's no doubt you'll need a strong team to be a main contender for the overall win."
The last word, though, should go to Pi¤era, who was the most in-demand person at the presentation. "I have tried to change things in cycling, but I couldn't," he said. "Cycling remains anchored in the past. Little has changed since I started trying to help this sport. It is clear that it is going to remain in the hands of strong companies and that the sponsors are going to have less influence."
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