Heras focused

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The Independent Online

Roberto Heras will try to reaffirm his credentials as one of the world's most exciting riders as he attempts to defend his crown in the 56th Tour of Spain, which gets underway today.

After a low-profile season spent working for Lance Armstrong's US Postal team, the 27-year-old Spaniard is hoping to emerge from the shadows of the three-time Tour de France champion to take centre stage on his home soil. But he is cautious about his chances of donning the leader's gold jersey when the race reaches Madrid on 30 September.

"I am not in bad shape, but not as good as last year," he said. "I have my doubts about my form, but I don't really know how fit the other riders are either. But with a key mountain stage on the fifth day, we will soon find what sort of shape we are all in."

It was the Spaniard's dominant performance in last year's Tour of Spain, following an impressive fifth-place finish in his first Tour de France, that persuaded Armstrong that Heras was the man to help shepherd him through the mountains in his attempt for a third consecutive Tour victory.

Heras was then involved in a somewhat acrimonious separation from his home-based team Kelme after US Postal bought him out of contract. A troublesome knee injury sustained after a fall in the team time-trial in France has hampered his preparations, but with the injury behind him Heras can now focus on what has been his prime target this season.

The US Postal rider will face tough opposition from a talented field, in particular from the ONCE team led by Joseba Beloki and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who finished third and fifth respectively in this year's Tour de France.