Roberto Heras begins the defence of his Vuelta title in Leon today, but there is a host of riders lo
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE The 59th edition of the Tour of Spain starts today (Saturday) with a 27km team time trial around the city of Leon, in western Spain. Two-time winner Roberto Heras will be defending the title he took with US Postal last year, although he is now racing in the colours of Liberty Seguros. This has become very much a locally contested event in recent years, and most of the other serious contenders should be Spanish. 2002 Tour de France runner-up Joseba Beloki is still studiously making his way back to full fitness after joining Saunier Duval in July, but apart from Heras there are a number of other local favourites, principally Alejandro Valverde. Third last year, the Comunitat Valenciana rider is everyone’s favourite for the gold leader’s jersey this year, although his team might not thrive in the windy conditions expected around Leon today. Valverde’s aim will be to minimise his losses and then strike on the host of mountain top finishes where this race will ultimately be decided. As well as Heras, Liberty can also call on last year’s runner-up Isidro Nozal and fourth-placed finisher Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano. The names of Oscar Sevilla and Francisco Mancebo should come into the gold jersey equation as well, although the former may well have to sacrifice his chances to support his Phonak team leader Tyler Hamilton, while Mancebo is struggling with a recently broken wrist. As well as Olympic time trial champion Hamilton, other English-speaking riders to watch for are Cadel Evans, who is determined to deliver one good major tour performance in T-Mobile colours, and US Postal’s Floyd Landis, who forms a powerful strike force with Manuel Beltran and Victor Hugo Pe¤a. Riders who possess a good combination of climbing and time trialling talent should have a strong advantage as this 2004 edition of the Vuelta contains a total of 128km of racing against the clock. In addition to the team time trial, there are no less than three individual time trials to follow, on stage eight (41km), stage 15 (29km but all uphill), and 30 kilometres into Madrid on the final day. The terrain gets serious after that first time trial with two summit finishes in a row, on stage nine to the Alto de Aitana, and stage 10 to the Xorret de Cati, and another three days later at the Calar Alto weather station. Stage 15’s time trial is the Vuelta’s answer to the Tour’s Alpe d’Huez time trial, as the riders tackle the climb to the Sierra Nevada ski station above Granada. If the prospect of 29 kilometres of climbing is not daunting enough, Vuelta organisers Unipublic have shown their sadistic side by selecting the steeper of the two roads up to the resort. With summit finishes, too, at the Covatilla ski station above Heras’ home town of Bejar on stage 17, and the Navacerrada on the penultimate day, these six summit finishes in all should ensure a worthy winner in Madrid, although recent history suggests that we might have to wait until the very last rider has finished in Madrid before we know who that winner is.