Tapas de Etapas
One of the great traditions of Spanish culture is the tapeo (or tapas-bar spree). When in full swing a tapeo is like a giant soirée and movable feast to which everyone is invited. A tapeo invents itself as it goes along; conversations with strangers, spontaneous introductions, and the unexpected appearance of an old friend or ex-lover… Anything can happen on a tapeo, and often does.
The tapeo reflects the Spanish approach to life with its itinerant tasting and tippling that stems from an unabashed love of play and pleasure. And because home entertaining is uncommon in Spain, tapas bars serve as de facto living rooms; places to eat, relax, meet friends, watch the Vuelta or a soccer game, have a quiet drink, chat with the owner. In small villages, the local bar or café is even more important. Visits are built into the evening paseo, the ritual stroll with no particular destination, other than a favorite tavern, or two, or three. In the Basque country and other regions of northern Spain , the tapeo tends to be a kind of barhopping; Basques, for instance, typically order only a few tapas at each stop, with shots of wine or shallow zuritos of beer. A full meal, usually at home, comes later. By contrast, Andalusians tend to linger in one place, making a meal of their tapas while sitting at table – an uncommon sight in the north.
Taking our lead from this very Spanish tradition we will drop in on the Vuelta with itinerant ‘tasting and tippling' of daily etapas (stages). Along with our words we also present a daily photo album of this magnificent race. Enjoy our ‘Tapas de Etapas'.
The ‘Cat' and the ‘Cricket'
For the sprinters the Vuelta offers few ‘etapas' to demonstrate their skills. The Vuelta is typically a ‘tapeo' of endless mountains, expansive plains and very hot and dry weather. At the Giro and Le Tour, GC contenders typically use the first week to ride themselves into peak form. The 2007 Vuelta offered no such luxury for already on the fourth day the race headed for the high mountains to finish amongst the stunningly beautiful high Alpine lakes of Covadonga.
On Stage 1 we were all reminded once more of the impact of the drug scandals on our sport. Last years Vuelta winner Alexander Vinokourov, now in disgrace for blood doping, was not allowed to race. Consequently race ‘dossard #1' was given to the first team listed on the start sheet, Ag2R, and it was their rider José Luis Arrieta who carried the actual number.
As we have seen every day thus far in this Vuelta, stage 1 saw a long break that was clinically snuffed out within tantalizing reach of the finish. The mad dash for the line saw Danielle Bennati pick up where he finished Le Tour when he won the final stage into Paris . Massed around Bennati were Oscar ‘the cat' Friere, Alessandro Petacchi, Alan Davis and just about every other rider claiming to be a sprinter.
A bad crash mid-race took out Discovery Channel's Tom Danielson and left former Giro winner Damiano Cunego looking like an Egyptian mummy. Happily for Cunego his injuries have allowed him to continue his Vuelta ride.
Having been so close on stage 1, Oscar ‘the cat' Friere made no mistake on stage 2 when he out-kicked Paolo ‘the cricket' Bettini to take the win. An all day break was eliminated with just 2kms to go but then the heaving bunch destroyed itself with a massive crash that left only a dozen or so riders to contest the actual sprint finish.
Next day, stage 3 from Viveiro to Luarca, featured the daily long suicide break. In the streets of Luarca two short circuits included a nasty 7.5% climb and some very technical cornering. But in the heaving mass it seemed that everyone wanted to win and consequently speeds of 70kmph were reached. In the hair-raising finale some sketchy maneuvering was taking place and it was ‘the cricket' Bettini who reversed yesterdays result to beat Oscar ‘the cat' to the line. Friere later expressed his considerable concern at Bettini's end of race switching which left him boxed in.
The duel between ‘the cat' and ‘the cricket' is shaping up for an interesting battle at the World Championships in a few weeks time.
Now it was time for the sprinters to enjoy the mountain scenery from the relative luxury of the ‘autobus'. The stage 4 185km ride from Langreo to Lagos de Covadonga featured two modest climbs before reaching the final 12.6km (ave. 7.3%) ascent up to the cloud covered summit at Covadonga. A 30-man break led the race until it hit the lower slopes of the final climb. It did not take long before their 2m advantage was wiped out by the ‘mountain goats'. However one man from the big break, Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne) not only resisted, but held off a furious battle for the GC raging behind him to take a brilliant victory. A minute after Efimkin, Leonardo Piepoli led the charge from a small group containing Stijn Devolder, Denis Menchov, Maxime Monfort and Carlos Sastre. Cadel Evans, himself a GC contender, rode over the finish line 22s after Piepoli. For everyone the first big mountain day is always difficult
Efimkin took the gold colored leaders jersey and now we seemed to be looking at those who would be contesting for the final podium.
The Cat and The Old Man
When Oscar ‘the cat' Friere is going good, he is very good. He took out both stage 5 and stage 6 with apparent ease. On stage 5 Bennati came close for second and ‘the cricket' Bettini was challenging yet again to claim third place.
Apart from Friere's dominance it was fabulous to see that gentlemanly behavior still separates professional cycling from very many other sports. Early on in stage 5 Paolo Bettini inadvertently caused Rabobank's Theo Eltink to fall. The reigning World RR Champion stopped to check that Eltink was OK and then, when the Dutchman had fixed his bike, paced him back to the peloton. Not many riders can claim to have the World Champion pace them back to a race and Eltink will surely remember the experience for very many years.
Friere's three stage wins clearly position him as Spain 's number one rider for the upcoming World's. And should he win in Stuttgart that will be his fourth world RR title!
A big feature of stages 6 and 7 were the winds blowing across the plains of Aragon . These conditions make for great race viewing but sheer hell for the riders. As the wind wreaks havoc on the race the bunch fragments into echelons of riders in line-astern from one side of the road to the other. If you have ever raced in such conditions you know that your world quickly shrinks into a battle of survival. All you can see is the wheel in front of you and your only earthly desire is to stay glued to that wheel. If you look up and see other echelons riding away in the heat haze your motivations tanks out, the agony increases and a big time loss is in your immediate future.
While ‘the cat' in these conditions came out on top in stage 6 it was ‘the old man' Erik Zabel who not only survived the winds of stage 7 but also a late stage crash that again left only a dozen riders to vie for victory. Yet again ‘the cricket' was in the fray but this time Alan Davis separated him from Zabel.
It was now time for the race of truth. Stage 8 featured a relatively long 49km time trial. Race leader Efimkin is known to be a weak ‘tester' and many believed that he would lose his race leadership. And so it was.
How do they do it? Bert Grabsch (T-Mobile) rode at almost 55kmph to claim a stunning win. Second place went to the Hungarian TT specialist Laszlo Bodrogi (at 34s) and third was Discovery's Stijn Devolder (at 48s).
Efimkin lost his race leadership to Devolder with Denis Menchov between the two of them.
Back to the Mountains
Altitude was now the key word for the next two days. Stage 9 finished atop the Estación de esquí Cerler and stage 10 finished atop the Estación de esquí de Ordino Arcalís (in Andorra ). Both of these mountain top finishes are in places that are great if you are there to ski but to race a bike up them is really something else.
The ride up to Cerler on stage 9 resulted in a race of attrition that left the peloton spread all over the Pyrenees . In the end Leonardo Pieploi (Saunier Duval) claimed a spectacular win from Denis Menchov. Within a minute or so of their arrival at the summit most of the realistic GC contenders including Sastre and Evans painfully rolled over the finish line.
Tongues started wagging in the press room after the race that Piepoli was working for Menchov who was now race leader with Efimkin 2 nd and Evans 3 rd . Being in different teams such collusion is seriously frowned on. However both Menchov and Piepoli claimed that they were discussing their different goals. Menchov wants to win the Vuelta while Piepoli claims that at his age he is only interested in stage wins.
Stage 10, different mountain, same story (almost). This time Menchov rode a commanding race to both win the stage and to further consolidate his GC advantage. The elite group of six riders that finished with Menchov again included Piepoli and again they were seen talking together over the final kms of the ascent to the finish. Once more the two denied creating a combine but Carlos Sastre and Manuel Beltran in particular are furious with the situation. Sastre claims that the two of them are ganging up against him while Beltran who had made what looked like a race winning break on the final climb, claims that they stole his victory from him.
Rest at Last
Today is the first rest day and after an extremely aggressive and fast first ten days there are many very weary riders. However Denis Menchov looks to be well on his way to winning the Vuelta. Meanwhile Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre are repeating their Tour performances as excellent also-rans. In fact in my books I would nominate Evans as the ‘wheel-sucker' of the year!
Efimkin is 2m 01s behind Menchov on GC and has vowed to fight to the end. Piepoli who is nearing the end of his career is astounding. Here he is dictating the race up the mountains just as he did at this years Giro and Tour. To be competitive in three Grand Tours in one year is a major athletic feat.
So far we have focused on great racing, acts of gentlemanly conduct and talked of collusion as the big scandal of the race. What a difference to the Grand Tours of recent years where drug related problems have dominated the news and sullied our racing pleasure. Let's hope that for the first time in a long while we will get through a Grand Tour without a major drug scandal.
On Wednesday's Stage 11 the race resumes with a route that should suite the sprinters.
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