Vuelta Travelogue - Anticipation and Trepidation
Stage 18, September 14th,
Sierra de la Pandera, 153.1 km
Veni, Vedi, VINO!
Yesterday our report started with a look at the spectacular Alhambra in the city of Granada. Today the race leaves from Granada and heads out into rugged and mostly barren mountain country. It is along these roads that the Vuelta may be finally won or lost. This will be a punishing mountain stage for many especially after yesterday's incredible racing. Those who slept well and benefited from expert massage treatment will have the upper hand.
he stage starts modestly enough but after the peloton passes through Jaén at km 117 the route turns decidedly nasty as the road turns towards the sky. Ten kilometers of rolling road after Jaén take the riders to the base of the Alto de los Villares. This 10km category 2 climb spills on to the Alto de la Pandera only a kilometer or so over its summit. While the Pandera is ‘only' 8km long, this brute of a climb (which is ‘above category') has earned the nickname “Hell of the South” during previous Vuelta visits. With an average of 6.4% some of its ramps rise up to 18% as the narrow mountain road winds its way over a moonscape like terrain.
The top of the Alto de la Pandera ( Image © Unipublic )
The combination of the Villares and Pandera climb is guaranteed to ignite a major battle. With this being the final mountain stage of the Vuelta the overall General Classification could well be decided here. Also with Martinez and Caucchioli being equal on mountain points these two will be conducting their own war regardless of what the GC contenders are up to.
The last time the Vuelta finished at the top of the Alto de la Pandera was in 2003 and it was Alejandro Valverde, then a young emerging star, who claimed victory that day. We can be sure that he will want to repeat that success today and with it reclaim his leader's jersey from Alexandre Vinokourov.
Right on form the first break of the day comprising seven riders established itself after just 4kms of racing. Amongst them was our old friend Raul Garcia de Mateo Rubio (Relax-GAM) who was the very first rider to make an attack in this year's Vuelta and has made several early race attempts since. Maybe this time he will become “The Little Rider That Could”.
The Breakaway, Raul Garcia de Mateo Rubio far left ( Image © Unipublic )
Certainly one potential race strategy could have played to the breaks advantage. By allowing them to get to the Alto de la Pandera first, race leader Vinokourov and his Astana team would rob anyone high on GC the possibility of gaining any bonus seconds. This scenario would then need Valverde and his Caisse d'Epargne team to attack in an attempt to reverse his 8 second deficit on race leader Vinokourov. However the Caisse d'Epargne team will have other ideas as will the CSC team who still hope to elevate Sastre into the race lead.
At about the halfway point in the stage the break was cruising along about 2:40 minutes ahead of the bunch as they took on more provisions at the official feed. Ahead lay about 30kms of mainly downhill road to Jaén and then the start of the serious climbing. The break extended their lead to 4:05 minutes at 90kms but 10kms later the Caisse d'Epargne team turned up the gas to put pressure on Vinokourov. The effect was immediate on the break as their advantage quickly started to diminish.
Caisse d'Epargne team turned up the gas ( Image © Unipublic )
There now followed a lull before the storm as the race approached Jaén. In the main peloton the shuffling of riders began as teams brought their top men closer to the front. Meanwhile the break maintained their advantage at around 3:30 minutes. A short while later due to the efforts of the Caisse d'Epargne team 50% of that was smartly sliced off.
Up front the break fragments as several riders attack their former companions for the day. But as the Alto de Los Villares looms ahead the bunch strings out as Valverde's team maintains a very high tempo. At this rate the remnants of the break have little time left to bask in their place at center stage of the TV coverage.
But the survivors of the break, Nicki Sorensen (Team CSC - best on GC at 38'54), Olivier Kaisen (Davitamon) and Raúl García De Mateo (Relax-Gam), are not giving up without a fight. As they grind their way to the summit of the Villares they still have nearly 1:30 minutes. Sorensen then attacked and rapidly rides away alone. The others are soon scooped up by the hard charging bunch.
Next to attack the leading bunch is Iban Mayo who is followed soon after by a very fast moving Egoi Martinez (Discovery) clearly going for the Mountain Jersey. Together they catch and drop Sorensen and open up a 30 second gap on the aggressive peloton. At the top of the Villares Martinez takes maximum points and thus becomes the leader of the Mountain Jersey competition. Caucchioli meanwhile is having a bad day and has been dropped from the bunch and is no longer a threat to Martinez .
With a modest descent over the top of the Villares the riders only have one kilometer or so before the first 14% ramp of the Alto de la Pandera rears up in front of them and the road narrows to about the width of a car. Martinez made quick work of Mayo and is soon alone in the lead. Minutes later he is gobbled up by the elite group which has shed the rest of the bunch.
Vinokourov's attack ( Image © Unipublic )
Suddenly with 5.5kms to go Vinokourov explodes off the front. In front of him a herd of motorcycles get in his way as the Kazakh screams at them to clear off. Behind Vino chaos reigns and Valverde looks to be in serious trouble. The gradient pitches up to 18% and Vino is rocking and rolling all over his bike. His teammate Kashechkin incredibly rides across to him. This must be the Vuelta winning move.
Teammate Kashechkin's incredible ride across to Vnokourov ( Image © Unipublic )
Three kilometers from the summit the Astana race leaders have 27 seconds on Valverde who is putting up a brave fight. Vino gives Kashechkin the stage win. Marchante struggles in for third 30 seconds later and Valverde is 2 seconds behind him. Suffering the biggest loss was Carlos Sastre who lumbered over the line 48 seconds after Vino in 10th place.
ASTANA! ( Image © Unipublic )
For Valverde the Alto de la Pandera lived up to its nickname. His dream of winning this year's Vuelta was almost certainly extinguished on the ‘Hell of the South'. For Vinokourov and his Astana team it was a day of unmitigated success. Valverde is now 58 seconds behind Vinokourov and Kashechkin is third on GC. Tomorrow's long and lumpy stage could be dangerous but most likely the sprinters will want to shine again. Vinokourov should seal the deal in Saturday's TT and then ride into Madrid as the new Vuelta Champion. Veni, Vidi, Vino!
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