When I spoke to Denis Menchov back in January about the upcoming season, things were very much in doubt as to what would become of the Geox-TMC squad. The newly formed team, backed by two major Italian sponsors, had just been snubbed by Tour de France organizers, ASO, and a flurry of other race invites had just passed by as well. There was even question as to whether the team would get an invite to Italy’s biggest race, the Giro d’Italia. With so many questions swirling, and very few answers coming, there was even doubt as to whether Menchov, last year’s third place overall finisher at the Tour de France, would remain with the team.
Two months on and answers are far more prominent now than questions. Menchov responded definitively that he would remain with the Geox-TMC team, Geox-TMC got a coveted invite to the Giro d’Italia, and the team has gotten their season off to a great start. Menchov, typically not one known for his early season results, snatched second place overall at the recently completed Vuelta a Murcia, behind a recently semi-cleared Alberto Contador.
With Geox’s two superstar Grand Tour winners, Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov, basing their seasons around the first Grand Tour of the year, and with Alberto Contador saying he will do the same, eight Grand Tours will likely toe the start line in Torino on May 7th. Along with the typical Italian onslaught, the additions of these top names to the race as well as an absolutely mountain driven parcours could make this the best Grand Tour of 2011. Forget about the Tour de France.
Of course, there’s no forgetting the Tour de France. If Denis Menchov is able to win his second Giro d’Italia in May, questions will abound – what could he have done in July in France? There’s no getting around the fact that the Tour de France is and will always be the world’s biggest race. It’s unfortunate that a major contender like Menchov won’t get a chance to take part in a race, where he could honestly lay claim as a possible winner, something very few riders can do.
I digress. Hopefully, you’ve gotten a chance to read the main interview in Issue 03 of peloton. The questions and answers that follow are more of our conversation…
What was your most important result with Banesto?
I don’t know, either the White Jersey in the Tour de France in 2003 or my win at the Tour of the Basque Country in 2004. It’s a hard question. I think I have to go with stage win at Paris-Nice in 2004 though. I won the stage in front of Luis Leon Sanchez and Landis. In that moment, I was very proud of my work, because it was a really difficult situation and a difficult race in difficult weather conditions. For sure it was really difficult to achieve. To realize that I could do it – that was really great.
Then you went to Rabobank and the really big results started to come, including your first Grand Tour victory.
The most important thing is the three big tours, no? I think all of them are very important. A victory in the big tours is huge. Looking back, I think for me, at this point, the most important victory is in the Giro 2009. I think it was really a great victory. The situation, the race, and the way I achieved it, I’m very proud of that win. It was really difficult to do, you know, but we did it.
[Ed. Few people will ever forget the war waged by Danilo Di Luca and Denis Menchov over the latter part of the Giro. Di Luca, who tested positive for EPO during that fateful duel, attacked Menchov at every possible moment, but could never shake the Russian. It was a thrilling battle, but it was unfortunately marred by Di Luca's doping. Fortunately, Menchov still got the upper hand over Di Luca, so he was able to enjoy victory in Rome atop the podium - the right way.]
One of the most memorable images of that Giro was of you crashing in the final time trial in Rome. What were you thinking when that happened?
[Laughs] I don’t know. What was I thinking? I was more or less quiet. I had all the information leading into that final kilometer, how I was going, what the different between Di Luca and myself was. There were only 700 meters to go, so when I crashed, I got up, took the bike, and got going again. I didn’t panic.
Looking back at all of the races you’ve done, what has been your hardest day of racing ever?
I can’t say one race exactly. I think that it certainly came in one of the big tours, maybe one of the Tour de France stages. I got sick in both the 2002 and 2005 Tours. I was really sick, but I decided to finish the race both times. Those were really hard moments. You want to stay in and finish the race, but you’re sick, suffering, and barely able to get through the day…then there’s another day to come, and another. Terrible.
Is there a climb that stands out to you as the hardest?
Hmmmm. I was really impressed with the Kronplatz (Plan de Corones) time trial in the Giro in 2008. The time trial up to the Kronplatz was very hard. It is a very, very steep climb on a bad road, so it makes an already difficult climb even harder, you know?
Also, last year at the Vuelta, we did the Bola del Mundo climb for the first time. That was also a very, very hard climb on a steep, bad road.
Do you have a favorite race?
Of course, for me I think it’s the Giro d’ Italia. It’s my favorite. I like all of the Grand Tours though. Also, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Clasica San Sebastian are also really nice races.
As someone who calls Pamplona home, is racing in nearby San Sebastian kind of like racing at home?
Yeah. When I race there, I always hear and see a lot of people I know. I like that.
What is it about the Giro that you really like?
I don’t know, it’s..how do you say it…I like how riders race this race. I like the people around the race. I like that it’s a little different than the Tour and the Vuelta. I also like the climbs. I like that I have to think about, which chainring I can use: will it be the 36 or 34 today and which cassette: 25 or 27? It’s not only the conditions, you also have to think about the technical side of things.
What do you think about the 2011 Giro?
I think it’s very hard. It has eight or nine mountain stages so for sure it’s going to be hard.
When you look at a stage that includes two huge monster climbs like the Monte Costis and the Zoncolon, how do you think they’ll play out?
When you have a climb or stage like that in a big tour it is also a different story compared to if it were just a one day race, you know? There are some really difficult climbs that day, but it’s going to be difficult for all the riders. There are so many difficult climbs at the end of the Giro – it will be very tiring.
Looking back at the tour, what are your thoughts? What do you think about it when you look back?
It was for sure a very big achievement and a very big result for me. Last year’s Tour showed me I can still do a very good Tour de France. In the last years, I was not so lucky. Last year, I also focused on being better prepared. I worked toward my main goal a little differently, and I think it worked out really well.
Andy and his chain, thoughts?
I think it was a difficult situation to decide what to do. Also, in that quick moment you can’t see exactly what is happening. It was just one mistake from Schleck, and in that moment, you cannot stop and think about it.
Are you tired of being asked about it?
[Laughs] No. It’s ok. No problem. Of course, in the first two or three days after, a lot of people were asking.
What would you like to accomplish between now and when you retire?
I would like to win at least one more big tour, but also, I want to enjoy cycling. I enjoy racing, and I think that’s the most important.
Xavier Tondo, a pure climber, says that he dreams of racing Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Do you dream about trying those races out one day?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t think so. Maybe…maybe. I think I’d rather prepare for races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege in two or three years. I really enjoy that race.
Where is your favorite place to ride?
I like the riding in a lot of different places. I like places in Spain and Italy, and also in France. There are some places in the Pyrenees and Alps that are really nice to ride in.
How ofter do you get home to Russia?
Normally every year. After the season every year. My family is there.
A French journalist recently commented over the winter on the Alberto Contador affair: If you want to win the Tour de France, aim for second place. What do you think about that?
[Laughs] Yeah. I don’t know. I guess that could be true, but I don’t ever want to think about it like that. That’s depressing.
What was it like to get your first Grand Tour win in that fashion? Roberto Heras was disqualified, and then you were awarded the Vuelta title…
Of course, I was happy to win, but getting the win months later is a different story. When you win, and you get to stand there on the final podium and enjoy it with your friends and family – that’s special. With that Vuelta, I got to enjoy it quietly half a year later.