Vuelta Travelogue - Anticipation and Trepidation
Stage 16, September 12th,
Observatorio Astronómico de Calar Alto, 145 km
Reaching for the Stars
The German-Spanish Astronomical Center at Calar Alto is located in the Sierra de Los Filabres (Andalucía) north of Almeria. The majority of people that make the trip up to the summit of the Alto Calar (2090m) are visitors to the observatory complex run by the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. Amongst the telescopes in use is the Astralux instrument which the institute proudly proclaims to register extremely sharp astronomical images, comparable in resolution to views obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope.
For the Vuelta peloton the second day of rest is over and the final battle for race leadership is about to begin. Starting in Almeria the riders face three brutal days of mountain climbing. Turning their backs on the beautiful Mediterranean , the race heads inland where the first major obstacle (the Category 1 Alto de Velefique) of the day awaits them. From the summit at 56kms the race plunges down hill for 14kms where almost immediately the first ascent of the Calar Alto starts with a full 19kms of Categoría Especial (above category) ahead of them. Over the top the race drops down again for 30kms and then heads back to the top of the Calar Alto again by a different route to the first ascent.
Race fans are assured of three great days of racing and today may not settle the GC battle but it will eliminate any pretenders to the crown. Alejandro Valverde is widely viewed to have the race in his pocket but especially the Astana team do not subscribe to that notion. The ever aggressive Alexandre Vinokourov is supported amongst others by Andrey Kashechkin and Sergio Paulihno. All three of them have won a stage in this Vuelta and we could well see them repeat their recent exploit of taking it in turns to attack the race leaders on the road.
It was a nervous bunch that headed out of Almería and several early skirmishes were quickly doused by the peloton. Consequently the first slopes of the Category 1 Alto de Velefique saw the entire peloton start the 13km grind. Averaging 7.5% with ramps of 11% it was clear that cracks would soon appear. Attacks at about the halfway mark started to see small groups of riders forge ahead. By the summit (1800m) a dozen riders had opened up a 3:50 minute gap on the peloton. In this group was Discovery's Egoi Martinez (the best placed rider on GC 9:30 back) who took the mountain prime from Caucchioli (mountain points leader) and Arvesen . Also there was Oscar Pereiro, Tour de France runner-up, looking after his teammate (and current leader on GC) Alejandro Valverde's interests.
Breakaway on the Calar Alto up the “easy” side ( Image © Unipublic )
Fourteen rapid kms downhill and the race hit the first ascent of the Calar Alto up the “easy” side which is rated Category 1. Halfway up the climb attacks started to change the composition of the break until nine riders finally hit the top together. Martinez took the prime from Caucchioli and the main bunch came over 5 minutes 21 seconds later.
The riders now faced a huge 60km loop around the mountain with about half of that distance downhill and the remainder being the Categoría Especial ascent up to the finish.
Near the summit cold rain made the early part of the descent dangerous and the break was obviously more cautious than the peloton as it started to chip seconds of the break's lead. However as they returned to the significantly warmer and drier lower elevations the break started to pull away again. As expected the big showdown would happen on the final leg-breaking climb to the observatory.
As the road reared up again the break now comprising nine riders had held their advantage to about 4:30 minutes over the peloton. Behind them the pecking order in the bunch was being established with Valverde, Sastre, Kashekin and Vinokourov being positioned and protected by their domestiques. Meanwhile huge, ugly black clouds were swirling around the summit of the Calar Alto.
José Antonio Redondo (Astana Team), Daniel Becke (Team Milram) attacked the break with 19km to go. Two kilometers later they had 25 seconds over their former break colleagues and 3:35 over the bunch as they started to encounter the first rain. At this point Carlos Sastre, along with his teammates, started to put the pressure on Valverde. The increase in tempo rapidly started to trim the peloton down in size.
With the air getting thinner and the rain getting harder, Redondo left Becke and settled in for his attempt at the stage win. The remnants of the break were now riding with big gaps between each rider. Martinez looked the most aggressive and was clearly looking for his second stage win as Caucchioli tried vainly to stay in contact with the Discovery rider.
Nine kilometers to go: the conditions were getting grimmer by the minute. Heavy grey clouds, light fog and cold heavy rain were turning this race into an exercise of survival. Martinez scooped up riders one by one as he made his way up to Redondo. The peloton with all of the key players was now down to six riders. Sastre, Vinokourov, Sanchez all had a shot at attacking as Valverde coolly contained each effort. However the constant accelerations caused Martinez to be caught. Redondo, Landaluze and Anton still led but their time in the lead was now coming to an end.
Vinokurov attacks and Sastre struggled ( Image © Unipublic )
Four kilometers to go: Vinokourov put in a vicious attack and Valverde is the only one who can hold him. Together they catch Redondo who immediately starts working for his team leader. Ahead of them Anton sliced through the fog and rain in a lone pursuit of the stage win. Within minutes the rest of the leading riders get back to Vinokourov and Valverde. The attacking continued and Tom Danielson put in a promising effort which Vinokourov decideed to control.
Euskaltel's Igor Anton solo ( Image © Unipublic )
Igor Anton (Euskaltel) held onto his lead and took a well deserved win. Valverde just took out Vinokourov for second place in a hotly contested sprint 23 seconds behind Anton. Valverde rode an intelligent stage and was able to respond to the numerous attacks made on him up to Calar Alto. His sprint for second today not only gave him more bonus seconds but delivered a powerful psychological blow to Vinokourov (now 2nd on GC) and Sastre (now 3rd on GC) who must be despairing for their ability to topple Valverde.
The stage winner ( Image © Unipublic )
Like the Astralux telescope, today's race brought some clarity to the overall GC fight. Two more days of climbing and one more long individual time trial separate the leaders from the top step on the podium. And they are all reaching for the stars.
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