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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Sprinters prepare for battle
Mario Cipollini (left) and Erik Zabel (right) will prepare to do battle
Cipollini (left) and Zabel have plenty to prove

Three time Tour de France winner Greg Lemond once said about cycling: "It never gets easier, you just go faster."

Never has the phrase been more apt as the sprints get hotter, with the world's best approaching speeds of 60mph in the latter part of tour stages and one-day races.

In recent years, the sprint headlines have tended to belong to Erik Zabel, winner of the Tour de France green jersey from 1996 to 2001.

Elsewhere Mario Cipollini has flamboyantly coasted to a series of high-profile wins.

Rarely, though, have the two had so much to prove as when they arrive in Spain for the three weeks of La Vuelta.


He has a lot of natural ability, but no one works harder than Erik
Telekom's Mario Kummer on Erik Zabel

Zabel has had a less successful season than usual by his own exalted standards.

Green jersey number seven eluded him at this year's Tour de France by a few bike lengths from Australian Robbie McEwen.

That said, Zabel is currently the world number one in the official rankings and hardly disgraced himself in the Tour with second place in the points race and a solitary stage win.

That determination to prove, at 32, he is not finished should produce yet more from the ice man of sprinting.

Mario Kummer, assistant director of Zabel's Telekom team, said: "He's by far the hardest working rider on the team.

"He has a lot of natural ability, but no one works harder than Erik."

Once again, much will depend on lead-out man Gian Matteo Fagnini and the pink train of the Telekom team.

At 35 and already having retired once, Cipollini has even more to prove.

In his very own stroppy fashion, the Italian decided to quit the sport altogether before backing down and revealing he was going for La Vuelta, the World Championships and next year's Tour de France before hanging up his cycling helmet.


His sprinting is like the fatal blow dealt by the matador in a bullfight
Mapei boss Jose-Miguel Echavarri on Freire

While Zabel will be the Mr Consistency over the Tour's three weeks, it is Cipollini who looks likely to blitz to the most stage wins.

Six stage victories on this year's Giro d'Italia show he is by no means finished and, if he can keep the toys in the pram, he can be equally competitive on Spanish soil.

Aggression is the name of the game for all the top sprinters and Cipollini, who was disqualified from one Vuelta for "physical aggression" against Francisco Cerezo, is no exception.

"Super Mario", as he is known, is likely to feature one of his trademark outfits at some stage on race day - perhaps the toga he donned to celebrate Julius Caesar's birthday in 1999 or the all-in-one lion lycra suit worn for an individual time trial.

In terms of temperament and approach Zabel and Cipollini could not be more different.

But the German and Italian are not the only major players in La Vuelta's sprint battle.

Two-time world champion Oscar Freire, who outgunned Zabel on stage two of this year's Tour de France. is another major player.

From a nation of climbers, the Spaniard is something of an exception and has targeted his home event as his major bid for glory this season.

Freire's Mapei boss Jose-Miguel Echavarri said of his leading sprinter: "His sprinting is like the fatal blow dealt by the matador in a bullfight.

"But in a bullfight, what Spaniards like most is not the final blow. It's all the gestures and moves that come before.

"It's another sort of cycling."

Other outsiders for the sprinting glory include Danilo Di Luca and Fabio Baldato among others.

But the Italian duo could struggle to keep up with the trio of Zabel, Cipollini and Freire.

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