Oscar Pereiro's dream was to win the Tour de France. He still does not know if it has come true.
Pereiro, a 29-year-old Spaniard who rides for the Caisse d'Epargne team, finished second in last year's Tour to Floyd Landis. Days after the race, Tour officials revealed that Landis had failed a drug test. If the test results were upheld through Landis' expected appeals, the officials said, Pereiro would be named the winner.
And that is where Pereiro has spent the past year, in a sort of yellow-jersey limbo. While Spanish cycling fans hailed him as the real winner of the Tour and turned him into a sporting star, with all of the attendant demands on his time, Pereiro said, the combination of the attention and the absence of resolution drove him into a despairing state from which he has only recently emerged.
"Of course it changed my life completely," Pereiro said on Friday when asked about the effect of the events of the last year. "Before, I was quite an unknown rider, and from one minute to another I became a very famous rider."
Interview requests poured in, dinner invitations were extended, and talk shows and autograph seekers and other stars of Spanish popular culture came calling to bask in the glow of Pereiro's achievements.
"And that is why the first part of my season was not so good and was not what was expected of me," Pereiro said. In addition to the lack of training, "I was mentally blocked, I think, by that situation, because I was not used to such pressure in everyday life."
In some ways, he appears to have adapted. While many cyclists show up for pre-Tour news conferences looking as if they had just rolled out of bed - and they often have - Pereiro's hair was well-gelled and he wore a fashion-forward pair of white-rimmed sunglasses on Friday.
Yet Pereiro has not let the recognition go to his head. His teammate Alejandro Valverde left the news conference without answering follow-up questions, but Pereiro stayed for nearly a half hour extra giving television and radio interviews in Spanish, French and English.
For all the acclaim, Pereiro seems to be still unsure what it means. For the first time, Tour officials decided not to let any rider this year wear the No. 1 on his jersey, an honor reserved for the winner of the previous year's race.
Pereiro was given the lowest number, No. 11, and he was scheduled to be the last rider to start on Saturday's prologue time trial as the Tour de France began in London. The final starting position is also reserved for the previous year's winner.
As the highest-ranked returning rider, it is only natural that Pereiro should be awarded that spot.
"But as for me," he said, "I cannot consider myself the winner of the Tour de France yet, because we have to wait until all of the affair is finished," referring to Landis' arbitration hearing and the expected appeal.
Pereiro grew up racing bicycles in the Galicia region of northwest Spain. In his youth he was primarily a cyclocross rider, racing road-style bikes on dirt tracks. After winning the national cyclocross championship, and while working as a plumber's helper, he turned to road racing and was an immediate success.
In 1999, he won a youth race known as the Vuelta a Portugal do Futuro, despite having only one teammate to help him. Soon, Pereiro attracted offers from professional teams, landing after a few years at Phonak, where he was Landis' teammate.