There was as much relief as exultation from Roberto Heras as he clinched a record-equalling third Vu
PICTURE BY LAVUELTA.COM After taking his third Vuelta title for his third different team and equalling Tony Rominger’s record of Tour of Spain wins in the process, Roberto Heras admitted that this latest victory in his home tour had been the toughest of the lot. “It was the one I’ve worked hardest for. All three are of equal importance, but this has perhaps been the most emotive,” said the Liberty Seguros team leader after beating Phonak’s Santiago Perez by just 30 seconds after three weeks of racing. Heras went into yesterday’s final time trial in Madrid just 43 seconds ahead of Perez, who was regarded by all of his rivals as the strongest man in the race during an arduous last week. “I had doubts about winning because Santi Perez was so very strong, but I knew that if I rode at my best level then I ought to win. When they started to give me time checks on him I knew the race was mine,” said Heras, who lost just 13 seconds on stage winner Perez. “I enjoyed the last eight kilometres because I knew I had won.” Heras admitted he had been made more nervous than usual because of losing the same race in much the same situation two years ago, when Aitor Gonzalez beat him in a Madrid time trial and took the gold jersey for the very first time on the very last day. Rather than being at his brilliant climbing best, Heras acknowledged his victory was down more to consistency. “My best stage was the (victory at) Calar Alto, my most disappointing the time trial on the Sierra Nevada. The last week was very complicated for me because Santi Perez was in such great form. I went through some difficult moments, but I must congratulate him for his incredible form.” Despite falling short on the final day, Perez’s was understandably delighted with his three weeks at the Vuelta. After finding his form in week one, the Asturian took consecutive stage wins in week two, and pressed Heras all through week three, before adding a third stage win in Madrid. Not bad for a rider with only two wins in his stop-start four-year career before the Vuelta. “I’m not disappointed because 43 seconds was a big gap, and I have to congratulate Heras because he rode a great race,” said the 27-year-old Phonak rider. “The fact that I won the final time trial really gives a climber like me confidence for the future. It has been a dream for me and I want to keep on dreaming.” Perez refused to blame his ultimate defeat on his significant loss of time to Heras in the mid-race Ford factory time trial, and he also played down the fact he had started the Vuelta riding for team leaders Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla. Hamilton, who is currently suspended after a positive test for blood doping, was at the finish in Madrid to greet Perez and the other Phonak riders. Asked what his targets are now, Perez unsurprisingly nominated the Tour de France. “The Tour is the most important race and has the toughest mountains, which is good for me, but I wouldn’t mind another taste of the Giro either, because I crashed out last time I was there,” he said. Yet again, the Vuelta has proved the most gripping of the major tours. For the fourth consecutive year the final result has been in doubt until the very last important stage, and on three of those occasions that has been on the race’s final day. Remarkably, for the first time since the early 1940s, Spain also provided the top 10 finishers overall. Indeed, Stefano Garzelli (11th) and Damiano Cunego (16th) were the only two foreign riders to finish in the top 20 overall. This could perhaps be a sign of weakness in the level of competition, but the presence of riders such as Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Cadel Evans and the Italians suggests otherwise. However, whatever the level of competition, there is denying the high quality of action over the past three weeks.