Reported By Guy Wilson-Roberts
Salzburg, 2006: the World Road Championships. An ecstatic, emotional Paolo Bettini raises his arms in victory. Just behind him, the rider who led the sprint, who Bettini just slipped past, shows the pain of defeat, his face twisted with disappointment.
On the podium, though, the riders were all smiles and Bettini was magnanimous. “He is such a great friend and bike rider, who deserves a lot of respect,” he was reported saying. “I hope he will come back next year and win a world championship!”
Zabel’s form tuned in at the Vuelta, where he helped Ale-Jet win and beat Disco’s Allan Davis for his own win on stage 7.
Erik Zabel will be back to contest the World Road Championships this year and has already put last year’s second place behind him.
“Salzburg was last year,” he told PEZ recently via email. “Now I’m thinking about Stuttgart.”
Zabel’s palmares need no introduction and his record in the Grand Tours and the one-day classics make him the best sprinter of his generation.
But for the 37-year old rider, there is a new generation of sprinters in the peloton these days, which has made getting to the top step of the podium
At this year’s Vuelta, though, where the World’s contenders were honing their preparation, Zabel showed that he is still a threat with a strong victory in the
sprint on stage 7.
This man is probably the toughest of the sprinters – which should suit him fine in Stuttgart.
“I wanted to go to the Vuelta as good preparation,” he explained to PEZ. “My stage win shows me I’m on the right track.”
But his rivals also showed their form as well, with Bettini taking a stage win. As well, Zabel’s other bкte noire, Oscar Freire, who beat him into second place in the World’s in 2004 (as well as in Milan-San Remo the same year), was flying and took three stages.
But Zabel was mainly concerned with the current champion, who will be undoubtedly fired-up to defend his title.
“Bettini, of course,” he told PEZ when asked to name the main threat for Stuttgart.
The route for the race will be a challenging one: a total of 267.4 kilometres over the 14 laps of the course with over 5,000 metres of climbing, including
some short, steep gradients of 8% and 13%. It will likely take its toll on the peloton.
“The race will be very hard and long,” Zabel said. “I don’t think there will be a bunch sprint at the finish.”
It has been a difficult season for Zabel, and not just on the bike. In May, at a tearful press conference, he admitted to experimenting with EPO during the firstweek of the 1996 Tour de France.
“I doped, I lied, and I apologize for that,” he said at the time.
Because of this confession, his participation on the German team has been controversial. Doping has already clouded the race with the UCI determined to keep last year’s bronze medallist Alejandro Valverde away due to alleged links to Operaciуn Puerto, over the strident objections of the Spanish Cycling Federation.
But despite the tough year, Zabel will be back racing again in 2008 independent of his result in this year’s World Champs.
“I’m planning to do another season on my bike,” he told PEZ. “It’s not a question about the result in Stuttgart.”
And with his form still looking impressive, he was even optimistic about the possibility of spending that final season in the rainbow jersey – surely a fitting conclusion to a wonderful career.
“I’ve showed I can beat Bettini,” he said. “So let’s see in Stuttgart.”