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61st Vuelta a España - GT
Spain, August 26-September 17, 2006
Rest Day 1 - September 4
Green Bullet wrapped in gold
After nine days of hot and mountainous racing, the Vuelta riders will surely enjoy their first rest day. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-IB) is in possession of the first maillot oro of his career as the overall leader and the rest of the overall contenders have sorted themselves into a rough finishing order. Carlos Sastre (CSC), Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) look like the men with the best chance to depose Valverde. John Kenny reviews the first nine nine stages.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-IB) lost a small amount of time on stage 5, the Vuelta's first mountain stage. However, it looks like he has worked the rustiness out of his legs after his enforced lay-off caused by a broken collar bone sustained at the Tour. His display of power on stage 7 to overhaul Alexandre Vinokourov on the steepest part of the Alto de El Morredero climb underscored his return to form. He'll face a fight all the way to Madrid from Carlos Sastre (CSC), currently sitting in third place, and Vinokourov, as well as some of the dark horses of this Vuelta.
Vinokourov has won the previous two stages prior to the rest day and may be one of the few riders rueing the timing of the rest. His enforced absence from the Tour seems to have done him the power of good.
Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) has shown that his second place at the Clasica San Sebastian was no fluke. He is riding strongly in second place overall and has a strong ally in Kazakh countryman Vinokourov, although Astana management will need to put into place a proper GC assault plan. Vinokourov attacked Kashechkin when the pair were 23 seconds in front of the other main GC contenders close to the finale of stage 9. Vino sprinted away and secured the stage win ahead of a fast-closing Valverde but he may be expected to ride shotgun for his teammate for a bit longer if overall victory is on the Astana agenda.
Tom Danielson was installed as the undisputed Discovery leader before the start and is riding solidly, but is more than six minutes down and has two teammates higher than he on GC - Manuel Beltran and Janez Brajkovic. It is the Slovenian Brajkovic who is the real surprise packet of the Vuelta. He spent two days in the lead before fading on stage nine but he is still well placed in sixth at two minutes down.
José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir ) has climbed ably in the first part of the race and looks set to threaten the other podium aspirants, however, defending champion Dennis Menchov (Rabobank) and Tour champion elect Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne-IB) have had a tough time in the mountains and are both more than 40 minutes down on GC. Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is more than twelve minutes down and it will only be the true believers who mention his name as a future grand tour contender. Evgeni Petrov (Lampre-Fondital) and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) are also well out of the running.
Stage 1 - August 26: Málaga - Málaga TTT, 7.3 km
The Vuelta kicked off in sunny Malaga with a TTT won by birthday boy Carlos Sastre's CSC team, putting him into the lead of a grand tour for the first time in his career. The stage was far too short at just over seven kilometres for any real damage to have been inflicted on the other teams; the slowest team, Relax-Gam, lost only 37 seconds to CSC. Caisse D'Epargne-IB finished second restricting Sastre's time advantage to seven seconds over Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro.
Stage 2 - August 27: Málaga - Córdoba, 167 km
Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic) spoiled the party for the pure sprinters on the flat stage to Cordoba. The finale was a chaotic affair with Milram and Davitamon-Lotto messing up the lead-outs for Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen respectively. The Cricket was there to clean up the scraps and claim the win while Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) claimed another grand tour leader's jersey with his second place.
Relax-Gam, the Vuelta's only non-ProTour team, had a good day with Mario De Sarraga's 140-kilometre solo escape gaining valuable TV exposure for the team and the mountain's jersey for a few days for De Sarraga.
Stage 3 - August 28: Córdoba - Almendralejo, 220 km
The anticipated battle between Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) and Hushovd for the lion's share of the flat stage wins was delayed again when Francisco José Ventoso (Saunier Duval-Prodir) spoilt the party for the big-names Tour sprinters. All 189 Vuelta starters signed on for stage three, but the 40-degree temperature on the road must have test some rider's resolve. It was Ventoso, who had benefited from having teammate David de la Fuente in the big break of the day, who was the strongest in the finale. Hushovd's second place consolidated his overall lead.
Stage 4 - August 29: Almendralejo - Cáceres, 142 km
There would be few cycling fans who would not have been gladdened by Erik Zabel's first stage win in a grand tour for three years as the veteran German showed an impressive turn of speed to beat the more fancied sprinters into Cáceres. Earlier, the Relax-Gam team continued to punch above its weight when they sent another rider on a long solo break into the shimmering distance - Raul Garcia de Mateo held more than a six-minute lead at one stage but the sprinter's teams would have their day.
Stage 5 - August 30: Plasencia - Estación de Esquí La Covatilla (Béjar), 178 km
Danilo Di Luca sacrificed his classics campaign in pursuit of Giro success, which was ultimately fruitless. He salvaged something worthwhile from his season with an inspired ride on the Vuelta's first mountainous stage. He finished the stronger of his breakaway companions Janez Brajkovic and Andrey Kashechkin on the 12 percent slopes of the Covatilla to win the stage and the leader's jersey.
Of the favourites, Sastre was able to limit his losses to the breakaway trio but Valverde and Mayo lost over two minutes. Defending Champion Menchov lost 3 minutes and 37 seconds but it was Pereiro who fared the worst of the favourites, losing over five and a half minutes.
The Vuelta lost its first big name when Robbie McEwen finished outside the time limit.
Stage 6 - August 31: Zamora - León, 177 km
Thor Hushovd added a stage win to his impressive 2006 palmares when he out-sprinted T-Mobile's André Greipel and the Milram duo of Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi. The big Norwegian consolidated his lead in the points competition with his win. Earlier, Mathieu Claude (Bouygues Telecom) had put his hand up for the suicide break of the day. He was at the head of the race for the best part of 150 kilometres before the sprinter's teams reeled him in with 21 kilometres to go.
Di Luca kept his race lead and there was no significant change to the GC.
Stage 7 - September 1: León - Alto de El Morredero (Ponferrada), 154 km
Alejandro Valverde unleashed his devastating power to win stage 7 and move within striking distance of the race lead. Discovery's new star, Janez Brajkovic, claimed the race lead after a staying with the leaders on the Morredero.
Valverde overhauled Alexandre Vinokourov, who had gone clear twice on the Alto de El Morredero, agonisingly close to the finish. With 500 metres remaining it looked all but certain that the Kazakhstani would win the stage, before Valverde's finishing burst got the Spaniard the win.
Danilo Di Luca finished nearly two minutes down on Valverde, surrendering his overall lead to Brajkovic and moving to ninth on GC.
Stage 8 - September 2: Ponferrada - Lugo, 181.6 km
Alexandre Vinokourov put the previous day's disappointment behind him by snatching a stage win from the sprinters. Vino surged clear on the uphill rise to the finish in Lugo and came home well ahead of the rest of the field.
Oscar Pereiro wanted to do a good performance in front of his home crowd and followed an attack by Rene Haselbacher (Gerolsteiner) as they started the finishing circuit with eight kilometres to go, but the sprinter's teams reeled them in. Vinokourov attacked with 300 metres to go surging to the line for a great victory.
There was no significant change to the GC.
Stage 9 - September 3: A Consagrada - Alto de La Cobertoria, 207.4 km
On arguably the toughest stage of the Vuelta, Alexandre Vinokourov proved that he is just at home in the mountains as he is on the flat by claiming consecutive stage wins. Alejandro Valverde's odds of a maiden Vuelta win shortened still further when he claimed the overall lead from Janez Brajkovic.
Vinokourov and teammate and fellow Kazakhstani Kashechkin attacked from the fragmenting main bunch on the final climb to the Cobertoria (with nine kilometres of climbing at an average of 8.5 percent) with six kilometres to go, and opened up a 23 second lead on a group containing Valverde, Carlos Sastre (CSC), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) and José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval). Valverde set off in pursuit with two kilometres to go, prompting Vinokourov to leave a tiring Kashechkin and race ahead for the win.
Valverde became the race leader going into the rest day with a lead of 27 seconds on Andrey Kashechkin. Carlos Sastre (CSC) has been quietly going about his business and sits in third place at 44 seconds. José Angel Gomez Marchante has had an excellent first nine days in fourth, while Vinokourov remains a threat at 1'38".
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