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61st Vuelta a España - GT
Spain, August 26-September 17, 2006
Rest Day 2 - September 11
'El Imbatido' still unbeaten
Alejandro Valverde looks set to take his Golden jersey all the way to Madrid, as the 61st Vuelta a España has reached its second rest day in Almería, back at the South Mediterranean coast close to Malaga, where the race started two weeks ago. The profiles of the last six days of racing were not too demanding, and the hot temperatures of the first few days cooled down so the second week of the event saw the peloton in less distress then previously, writes Hedwig Kröner. Nevertheless, general fatigue at the end of the season is adding up, and the peloton will be thankful for the break before heading into the final week which has two mountain summit finishes and another individual time trial on the menu.
Two weeks have passed at the Vuelta a España, and the second week of racing provided little change to the top of the general classification - even though it featured the first individual time trial of the race in Cuenca. Overall leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) retained his golden jersey in the test, showing that he clearly improved his abilities against the clock, and managed to hold off his rivals even if he leads them only by narrow margins.
Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), who many rated as the better time triallist, could actually only make up 8 seconds on the Spaniard in Cuenca, exactly the amount of time Valverde had gained on him by sprinting to third place on the day before the time trial. 'Vino' is still 1.38 minutes behind Valverde on general classification, but his good performance in the race against the clock made him move up from fifth to fourth place.
Teammate Andrey Kashechkin is still the best-placed rider to shake Valverde's throne. Even though the Kazakhstani lost more precious seconds on the Spaniard in the second week of racing (the gap grew from 27 to 48 seconds), the maillot oro is still within reach; even more so if the two Kazakhstanis work together - and the two Astana leaders have not been lacking team spirit in the past.
CSC's Carlos Sastre, certainly tired as he is racing his third Grand Tour this season, is holding on to his third place remarkably well. He, too, lost some time in the race against the clock in Cuenca, but could still move up a spot if Kashechkin has a bad day in the upcoming mountains.
"The chance is definitely still there for us," said CSC sports director Kim Andersen on the rest day. "There are still three mountain stages left and sometimes things turn upside down, when there's a tough stage just after a rest day, so we might have a shot already on Tuesday. Everyone can have a bad day, but we're counting on Carlos not to have one. Unfortunately there are not many opportunities for an attack during the remaining stages, so it will be narrow margins, which will separate the riders at the top, because attacks are only likely during the final parts of the mountains."
The rider who suffered most in the time trial was Saunier Duval's José Angel Gomez Marchante, who lost 1.02 minutes on Valverde last Saturday. He swapped GC spots with Vinokourov and is now in fifth place, over two minutes down.
Discovery's Janez Brajkovic has confirmed his great talent and tenacity in the second week of racing, after wearing the maillot oro for two days after the first mountain stage of the Vuelta. The Slovenian is still sitting in 6th position, at 3.49 of overall leader Valverde, and could move up into Top 5 if he stays consistent.
But the main movers in this second week of racing at La Vuelta turned out the to be the ones further down on GC who - as the race moved from the Northern Atlantic coast of Spain to the Southern Valencian shores of the Mediterranean - used the transition stages to go for stage victories. Race leader Alejandro Valverde's team Caisse d'Epargne simply controlled the pace of the peloton and let others take the honours while saving the big one for itself.
But with the season slowly approaching its end, the second week of the Vuelta also saw 2005 winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank), as well as Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) drop out of the race: The Russian stopped his quest for better form after stage 10 as he was running on empty both physically and mentally. Gerolsteiner lost Rebellin on the eve of the time trial, and is starting into week #3 with only four riders left.
Stage 10 - September 5: Avilés - Museo de Altamira (Santillana del Mar), 199.3 km
Sergio Paulinho rounded out Astana's score so far to three victories on the day following the first rest day. He infiltrated a large break which went clear in the first hour of racing and then attacked just at the right moment, beating Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom). The bunch rolled over the line almost four minutes down.
Stage 11 - September 6: Torrelavega (Oscar Freire Velodrome) - Burgos, 173.6 km
Same procedure: another typical transition stage, with a group of riders going clear early on, building a large lead and providing the springboard for the eventual winner. This time, Discovery Channel's Egoi Martinez took the weel-deserved honours after spending a full day in breakaways, eventually soloing to the victory with 12 km to go.
Stage 12 - September 7: Aranda de Duero - Guadalajara, 169.3 km
Guadalajara saw the third Italian, Luca Paolini (Liquigas), claim his position in the Squadra Azzura at the World Championships by taking a stage win in the Vuelta. Paolini outsmarted a breakaway including sprinters like Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) by attacking in the last kilometres and took the baby home easy... Still no changes on GC.
Stage 13 - September 8: Guadalajara - Cuenca, 180 km
The Alto del Castillo in Cuenca, a cobbled climb up to the old city's castle, finally animated the overall contenders and sprinter's teams to get it together before the finish - but again, a cunning outsider by the name of Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) scooped the honours after a spectacular downhill attack. Still, Sanchez remained cool enough to take a sip out of his bottle as the sprinters nearly came back on him in the finishing straight!
Stage 14 - September 9: Cuenca - Cuenca ITT, 33 km
The GC contenders returned to serious business in the race's first individual time trial, taking on the castle climb in the 33km-long challenge against the clock in Cuenca. While the course was too short to provide for big time gaps between the best, a tall Scot made his come-back complete by taking the stage victory: David Millar (Saunier Duval) showed he was back at his best by beating a - disappointed - Fabian Cancellara (CSC) by a hair.
Stage 15 - September 10: Motilla del Palancar - Ford factory (Almussafes), 182 km
A cristal-clear bunch sprint stage all the way to the coast saw Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) sail to his second Grand Tour victory ahead of all the big name specialists, including Alessandro Petacchi (Milram), who found himself too near to the barriers in the final kilometre to fight for the win. The angry Italian then slammed his fist into the Lampre team bus after having crossed the line, blaming Danilo Napolitano for his defeat - and breaking a finger of his hand, too... 2006 will be Aee-Jet's season to forget.