Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain leads the peloton in the 2012 Tour Down Under in Adelaide.
Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain leads the peloton in the 2012 Tour Down Under in Adelaide. BEN MACMAHON

Spaniard talks down race chances despite Aussie's praise

CYCLING: Tour Down Under 2005 winner Luis Leon Sanchez's huge smile greeted the event's first champion Stuart O'Grady when the two met hours after the Spaniard's team had assembled its race bikes in preparation for a new start to the UCI World Tour season.

Leon Sanchez 12 years ago announced himself in Adelaide as a first-class pro cyclist, claiming his first major general classification at the Tour Down Under.

That was before the race was awarded UCI World Tour status in 2008, and six years after O'Grady had won the first edition for Credit Agricole.

O'Grady competed against the Spaniard in 2005, before finishing 70th overall.

The Aussie champ, who retired from professional racing in 2013, was impressed in 2005 and expects big things of the 33-year-old in next week's race.

"I reckon by looking at his physique there's a few veins popping out of those legs - he's in good form,” said O'Grady about his ex-rival.

"You can usually tell by the guys rocking up whether they have the Christmas kilos or whether they've been hard at work and he definitely looks like he's been hard at work.”

Despite the rap from O'Grady, Leon Sanchez, who looks super-fit after a pre-season in Spain, isn't talking up his chances.

"I have been working hard and for the first race of the year I'm not too sure how I will be,” said Astana's Leon Sanchez, ahead of his ninth Tour Down Under, starting on Saturday.

"In Australia it's always difficult. (But) we had a training camp in Valencia and I think the team will be in good condition to have a great race.”

Leon Sanchez has had 31 race wins, having raced 16 grand tours and 16 classics. And there's no reason that record cannot improve.

Led by revered Italian sports director Stefano Zanini, Astana has assembled a team worthy of causing much pain to the rest of the Tour Down Under peloton.

The most impressive Astana Tour Down Under CV alongside Leon Sanchez belongs to veteran Paolo Tiralongo.

The 39-year-old Italian has claimed three stages at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

Leon Sanchez is keen to earn another Tour Down Under general classification win, but knows locals will be favoured to win their home race.

O'Grady set that pattern in 1999, when he became the first of 11 Australians to win the 18 editions of the race.

"I don't know if I can win this race,” Leon Sanchez said.

"But I like everything about the race; the hotel is always the same one, we don't need to move around, the race is super and the weather is great.

"And the team that's here in Australia were with me in camp in Spain ... we'll work well together.”