Tapas de Etapas 3
Since the 2005 Vuelta a España fans have celebrated Grand Tour victories with increasing prudence. A short while after tasting the sweetness of victory, Roberto Heras was stripped of his crown and second place Denis Menchov was declared the official Vuelta 2005 winner. But just as Oscar Periero (2nd 2006 Tour de France) is experiencing now, to be declared a Grand Tour winner after the fact is a very unsatisfying situation.
Menchov has long been viewed as a potential Grand Tour champion but, like Periero and his 2006 Tour, a clear victory untarnished by drug scandals is obviously the preferred way to realize such big dreams. Going into the 2007 Tour de France Denis Menchov was one of the main candidates for reaching Paris in Yellow. However his Rabobank team also included another serious candidate in Michael Rasmussen. When the mountains arrived Rasmussen quickly asserted his authority and once clad in Yellow his team, Menchov included, were obliged to ride for the lanky, skinny Dane known as ‘the chicken'. As the race wore on insinuations concerning Rasmussen having apparently avoided pre-Tour drug tests in June came to a head. On Stage 16 Rasmussen scored a spectacular mountain-top win on the Col d'Aubisque. That evening Rabobank fired Rasmussen as he wore the Yellow jersey and was comfortably 3m 10s ahead of Alberto Contador on GC. Never in the history of Grand Tours had such a dramatic situation befallen a rider (or his team). The next day the Rabobank team started the stage totally demoralized. So much work for nothing. Menchov was apparently the hardest hit knowing that had he been given the support that Rasmussen had received day after day he could well have won the Tour himself. During Stage 17 Menchov, drained of motivation, stepped off of his bike mid-stage and abandoned the race.
Road to Madrid
After the emotional roller coaster of the Tour it would not have been surprising to have seen Menchov finish his season. However he obviously had good form as well as good people to convince him to take on the Vuelta. On Stage 9 Menchov rode away from the field with Leonardo Piepoli to the mountain top finish at Estación de esquí Cerler. Piepoli won the stage and Menchov assumed the race leadership which he was destined never to relinquish.
After the second rest day there were just six stages left to contest. Menchov had powerfully, if somewhat unspectacularly, defended his lead but Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in particular harbored hopes of deposing the leader.
Every day the Vuelta was blessed with exciting attacking racing and almost every day an early break would disappear up the road hoping to outwit the peloton. After the second rest day (Stage 16) the peloton was reluctant to allow early escapers any rope. However after about 60kms of racing a break of 18 riders pulled away and most of them finished almost 8mins ahead of the bunch. Cooperation amongst the leaders evaporated as the finish drew close and coming into Puertollano Leonardo Duque (Cofidis - Le Crédit par Téléphone), Alexandr Kolobnev (CSC) and Joan Horrach (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne contested the finish (in that order) just ahead of their frantically chasing former break companions.
Next day (Stage 17) was a flat sprinters stage dominated by two lone escapees, Juan Olmo (Andalucia-Cayasur) and Jorge García (Relax-GAM). However after 155kms in the lead these two brave souls fell prey to the sprinters teams and were mercilessly hunted down with just 8kms to go. The entire bunch roared into Talavera de la Reina where Danielle Bennati claimed his second stage win in front of Paolo Bettini and Alessandro Petacchi. For Bennati this was his way of sticking his nose up at the Italian selectors who had left the Italian out of the World's team!
Time was running out for the GC pretenders but Stage 18's challenging route to the famous walled city of Ávila provided the terrain to create meaningful gaps. Eventually a large group pulled away with a second smaller chase group containing most of the leading GC riders not far behind. Carlos Sastre (CSC), who had (after Stage 9) accused Menchov and Piepoli of collaborating against him, organized his team in a beautiful tactical attack on the Porte de Mijares (cat 1). Remaining cool and in control Menchov contained Sastre as Cadel Evans struggled to hold the pace. Eventually the cream rose to the top and with the majestic walls of Ávila to be seen in the distance. A small break had formed ahead of the elite group on the final climb of the day and out of these, Luis Pérez Rodriguez (Andalucia-Caysur), attacked on the cobbled climb beside the ancient walls of Ávila. For Rodriguez, who had planned to retire from racing at the end of the Vuelta, this was a fabulous way to finish his 13 year pro career as he savored a lone win in his national tour. Meanwhile Menchov had shown his strength and coolness under pressure, Sastre had finally shown some aggression, Evans had shown weariness and former race leader Efimkin had cracked on the climbs and was now well out of contention.
A Nasty Climb
The final day of climbing was no cake walk and if Menchov was to be dispatched this was the day to do it. Finishing at the summit of the Alto de Abantos (1630m), this was a day of purgatory. Twice the field had to climb the Abantos which at its base passed through a small town with cobbled roads barely wider than a car. Already in this town the road pitched up to 14%. Out of the town the narrow road wound its way up through a forest and over rough surfaces with pitches as steep as 19%. In all, each ascent was about 25kms of climbing that you would not wish on your worst enemy!
It was the Basque riders of Euskaltel-Euskadi who set the climbs alight and demolished the hopes of many. Their plan was to bring their ‘man-on-form', Sammy Sanchez, to the finish first with the hope of not only winning the stage but also to put Sanchez on the podium. On the final ascent of the Abantos Sanchez, along with several teammates, executed their plan of attack and forced the favorites to chase hard. The incredible pursuit that followed had Sastre riding his heart out to save his podium spot while Menchov remained doggedly glued to his wheel. The big loser was Evans who could not stay with Sastre and Menchov. However he fought on bravely, never giving up and drawing on his extensive experience to contain the damage.
At the top Sanchez claimed his second stage victory. Menchov and Sastre were just three seconds back while Evans struggled in at 1m 25s to maintain his third place on GC by just 9s over Sanchez.
The final test (Stage 20) was against the clock. For Menchov with his 3m 2s advantage on GC the 20kms were a formality. However as a proud champion he wanted to win this stage to seal his victory. But again Sanchez was the man of the day and he beat Menchov to the top slot by 12s. For the battle weary Evans this was 20kms too far and being 19s slower than Sanchez caused him to lose his podium place to the Spaniard. Sanchez was also breathing down Sastre's neck but the CSC rider held on to his 2 nd place on GC by just 10s.
s is customary at most Grand Tours the last day was mostly a parade to celebrate and relax until the final flourish for the finish. In good Spanish style the field was so relaxed that they fell way behind the slowest estimated time. In order not to lose the all important TV coverage for the grand finale the number of finishing laps were reduced by one. In the mad rush for the line it was again Daniele Bennati taking the honors (and no doubt sticking it to the Italian World's selectors). For Bennati this was his third stage win in this Vuelta and a repeat of his win at the final stage of this year's Tour.
This was the first Grand Tour in a long time not to be overwhelmed by drug scandals. The 2007 Vuelta was a terrific race electrified every day by aggressive, attacking riding, elite riders battling each other for the podium and a race winner as solid as a rock. When you see a rider like Evans exhibiting human vulnerability as the result of a long and hard season, we can hope that perhaps drugs are finally being purged from our sport. What a pleasure to focus on the accusations of collaborations and combines as the biggest ‘scandal' of the race!
One ‘clean' Grand Tour does not mean that the war on drugs is won. However so long as the intentions of those who conduct the war against the evil are maintained with full vigor we can continue to move forward - with
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