Tapas de Etapas 2
After his three stage wins prior to the first rest day, Oscar Friere left the race to return home and prepare quietly for the upcoming world road race championships in Germany . So for the five stages between the first rest day and today's second (and last) rest day the dynamics of bunch sprint finishes changed. Also by withdrawing from the race Friere's Point's Leaders Jersey slipped across to the shoulders of Paolo Bettini.
Another major change to the race occurred after stage 11 when KOM competition leader Leonardo Piepoli flew back to Italy to be with his family. His wife had just given birth and she had suffered life threatening complications. Naturally there is no question about priorities under such circumstances. Happily for the Piepoli family the crisis was soon over and now they are celebrating the newest edition to their family with everyone healthy and happy.
From the Vuelta's point of view Piepoli's departure was very unfortunate because the little Italian climber had been riding a brilliant race and was injecting some great racing in to the high altitude battles. His performance was all the more astounding because he had been in the thick of things at both this year's Giro and Tour. To be competitive at three Grand Tours in one year is truly remarkable.
If tranquil is the right word for a race of this stature, then the quest for the Golden Jersey of race leadership has been tranquil. Since assuming the race leadership on Stage 9 Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has demonstrated a very quiet but very authoritative control over this Vuelta. Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne), Cadel Evans (Predictor – Lotto) and Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) have each tried to dethrone Menchov in the mountains but the Russian has always responded with almost contemptible ease. As we saw at the 07 Tour as well as in past Grand Tours, Sastre and Evans seemed destined to be eternal ‘bridesmaids'. They are both almost always in the final selections when it counts most but whenever they attack they are both incapable of making that critical difference.
Unless something bad befalls Menchov, this Vuelta will be his and certainly considerably more satisfying than his 2005 ‘victory' which he earned after race winner Roberto Heras was deposed for returning a positive drug test. With Friere back home the Rabobank team has been able to put its entire focus on the GC. And bringing Menchov victorious into Madrid will be some compensation for their devastating Tour when they fired (then race leader) Rasmussen and then saw a completely demoralized Menchov pull out of the race.
The Milk Train
Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) had been showing a return to his former self in the stages leading up to Stage 11. All summer ‘Ale-Jet' had been under suspicion for drugs but the charges have now all but melted away. The pressure on Petacchi had destroyed his form and desire to race (he missed the Tour). But now the old fire was back and his Milram team was more than ready to do battle. Ale-Jet took out both Stage 11 and Stage 12. On both days his Milram (milk train) team did a tremendous job in snuffing out race long breaks just before the finish and then positioning their man perfectly for the final lunge. Alberto Ongarato, Marco Velo and the ‘old man' himself, Erik Zabel, were instrumental in securing Petacchi's wins with their mastery of controlling the front of the race at blistering speeds. For Petacchi Stage 12 was his 19 th career Vuelta stage win!
According to the locals, rain is a rare occurrence on the Murcian roads between Stage 13's start in Hellin and its finish in Torre-Pacheco. Up until this stage the Vuelta had been blessed with sunny, dry weather. For Stage 13 grey skies greeted the peloton and the weathermen had confidently predicted light showers. What they got was torrential rain, some hail stones and roaring winds. In places so much rain fell that the roads were ‘turned into rivers'. The problem with rain on roads that rarely get wet is that accumulated motor oil gives the surface ice-like qualities. It was this effect that caused numerous crashes. Adding to the general chaos was the dirt being washed on to the road which resulted in many punctures.
Twenty kilometers into the race Andreas Klier (T-Mobile), Tom Stamsnijder (Gerolsteiner) and Jeremy Roy (Française des Jeux) managed to create a working break. Usually such long distance breaks (they were out there alone for a little over 150kms) are doomed to be extinguished before they can reach home. But these three guys held off the peloton and were able to contest their own private battle four minutes ahead of the field massed behind them. Klier took the honors from Stamsnijder with Roy dropped on the final run in to the finish 24 seconds back. It would be uncharitable to say that they only won because the weather made life near impossible back in the main field. They too had to survive the elements and their winning break more than deserved its race winning result.
McCartney hails from Hawaii and Idaho . It would seem that his Hawaiian heritage encouraged the sun to return to the Vuelta and make yesterday's conditions nothing more than a bad memory. Four Cat 3 climbs along with many other ‘rollers' made this a particularly challenging day. After 66kms of racing 11 men (with no real GC threats amongst them) rode clear never to be seen by the peloton again. Aggressive riding saw numerous attacks as the race entered its final phase. The final climb came with 15kms to go and McCartney was able to close down on splintering lone attacks prior to launching himself into the lead. With 2kms left to the finish only Thomas Lövkvist (Française Des Jeux) survived as a threat to McCartney but he fell 28 seconds short at the line where the American was savoring the greatest triumph of his racing career.
While the final days of the Discovery Team are ticking away it seems that the riders are still highly motivated. It is clear that much of this drive is to produce results to help the riders secure contracts with new teams for next year. Certainly today's 14 th stage provided a huge boost to Jason McCartney's negotiating power when he produced an impressive lone victory into the town of Villacarrillo .
Granada is a breathtaking city framed against the Sierra Nevada mountains that remain coated in snow at the highest elevations all year. Famous landmarks like the Alhambra Palace and the ancient bazaar echo back to the times when Granada was an Arabic stronghold. It's not hard for the Vuelta to find challenging roads in this area and for that reason the race frequently finishes here.
For Stage 15 the 201 kms included two Cat 3 climbs before tackling the dangerous Cat 1 Alto de Monachil. The Monachil is ‘only' 8.4kms long but it has leg sapping ramps of 12% and more. The real danger however lies in the descent which is about 20kms leading into Granada . Before the race Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) had described the drop into Granada "with a very long and dangerous slope". Knowledgeable riders know that energy must be preserved on the way up in order to tackle the power drive down. Last year Valverde lost his chance to win the Vuelta on this very slope when Vinokourov rode away from him on the descent.
By the time the race was on its way up the Monachil the familiar elite group of riders had formed around race leader Menchov. Ahead of them Damiano Cunego was the last survivor of the big break of the day. Chasing him hard was Manuel Beltrán who caught Cunego before the top and looked all set to take the stage. Over the top Beltrán led Cunego by 12s who was himself being hunted down by Sánchez. The Menchov group was 42s further back with Sastre in particular turning himself inside out attacking the race leader who calmly kept him under control.
The sentimental cheers were all for Beltrán who was now plunging down the mountain at 60kmph and more. But the English TV commentator was telling us that Cunego was a fantastic descender and that we were all set for a tremendous display of how to ride down a mountain. The Spanish camera crew knew otherwise and now their focus was firmly on Sánchez. Suddenly he passed Cunego as though he was standing still! The Italian tried valiantly to stay with the flying Spaniard but speeds around 80kmph were simply too insane for him. It did not take long before Beltrán was also caught but as the roads eased off coming into Granada he was able to contain the flying Sánchez until the final sprint for the line where he carried the Euskaltel-Euskadi colors to victory.
Menchov arrived with his GC limpets 41s after stage winner Sánchez who was the only GC hopeful able to take any time out of the race leader. After today's rest day there are just six stages left and the way Menchov and his Rabobank team are riding the 07 Vuelta is theirs to lose.
On Tuesday's Stage 16 the race resumes with a route that should challenge the sprinters and inspire the breakaway riders.
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