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Two top sponsors say farewell at Tour of Spain

Posted: Friday September 5, 2003 7:22PM; Updated: Friday September 5, 2003 7:22PM
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MADRID, Spain (AP) -- Two of Spain's most celebrated cycling teams will give their final performance in the Tour of Spain starting Saturday before their longtime sponsors abandon them.

Veteran sponsors ONCE and iBanesto will leave the sport at year's end, giving their riders one more chance to shine on the mountain summits and sizzling plains of Spain.

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The iBanesto team has included five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain, and ONCE's present star is Joseba Beloki, who was second in last year's Tour de France.

The 21-stage, 3,144-kilometer (1,965-mile) Tour of Spain, known among cycling aficionados as "la Vuelta", ranks with the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia among the top three events in the European cycling season.

It begins with a time trial in the northern town of Gijon and ends Sept. 28 in the streets of Madrid. It includes three time-trials, nine mountain stages and eight across the plains.

Among more than 100 competitors cycling for 22 teams, defending champion Aitor Gonzalez of Italy's Fassa Bortolo is this year's favorite.

Also igniting the hopes of fans are 2001 winner Angel Luis Casero, Belgian star Frank Vandenbroucke and U.S. Postal Service's Roberto Heras, for whom the absence of teammate Lance Armstrong at the Vuelta presents an annual chance to shine.

Designed to spare the health of exhausted cyclists still recovering from the Tour de France, the Vuelta has the shortest stages among the Big Three -- the longest stage is 194 kilometers (120 miles) on day 10. As a result, the stages are tense affairs that test the nerves of participants.

"Spanish cyclists are used to the short stages. It's good for them. And it's the best showcase that the iBanesto and ONCE cyclists can hope for," said Victor Cordero, who heads the organization of the Vuelta.

So far, only iBanesto's Juan Miguel Mercado has committed to a new team, joining Belgium's Quick Step in 2004. Those who have no new team in sight can use this race to better their chances of a new home, according to Francis Lafargue, spokesman for iBanesto.

Yet fans of the Vuelta hope the teams will be scooped up in their entirety by single sponsors, said Luis Roman, of the Spanish Cycling Federation.

With foreign participation in the Vuelta on steady decline -- this year features 15 foreign teams facing seven homegrown ones -- the worry is that Spanish cyclists auctioned off to other countries will not be back at the Vuelta next year.

"That would be a travesty for the Vuelta, and for Spanish cycling as a whole," Roman said.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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