NANCY, France -- Spanish rider Joseba Beloki is looking forward to the Tour de France's mountain stages next week, despite the painful memories of his bad crash in the Alps two years ago.
Beloki, who was second behind Lance Armstrong in 2002 and third in 2000 and 2001, had been tipped as the man most likely to end the Texan's reign in the 2003 Tour.
But the Spaniard crashed heavily in a descent after breaking away with Armstrong in the La Sentinelle climb, a few kilometers from the finish in Gap.
Beloki broke a leg and his hip bone while Armstrong escaped unhurt, leaving his rival weeping by the side of the road.
It was a turning point in the career of Beloki, a gifted and elegant rider who has struggled for two years to make his comeback.
The Spaniard fell out with his former team Once-Eroski before being offered a contract by Jean Rene Bernaudeau, chief of the Brioches La Boulangere team. His first outings were not promising and he looked unable to complete even a one-day race, let alone a stage event.
Things finally started looking up when his former team boss Manolo Saiz offered him another chance after withdrawing from the Vuelta, inviting him to join Liberty Seguros.
"The worst for him was the doubt," Saiz said. "Joseba is a fiery character and he badly needs to feel supported. We have worked hard on the psychological level since
the start of the season. His physical form is linked with his mental shape. He failed to complete the Giro d'Italia but it doesn't mean anything to me.
"I know that he is improving. He is pedalling pretty well at the moment. Don't forget that he managed to be on the podium of the Tour de France three times in a row," he said.
For Beloki, much has already been achieved.
"Being at the start on Saturday was a victory for me," he said. "I thought I would never come back to the Tour de France."
"When I was with Brioches La Boulangere I doubted I could carry on cycling," he said. "So being here is like a dream come true.
"I felt all right during the individual time trial and really good in the team time trial. Now I'm looking forward for the mountain stages. If I can stay with the leaders in the Alps, then anything is possible," he said.
The 31-year-old Spaniard is trailing Armstrong by 2 minutes, 43 seconds in the overall standings and has too much experience to say he is chasing the yellow jersey.
But after German rider Jan Ullrich made a disappointing start in the first stage, Beloki could be the man Armstrong will have to watch again.
"I've been waiting for this for two years," Beloki said.