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61st Vuelta a España - GT

Spain, August 26-September 17, 2006

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Stage 4 - August 29: Almendralejo - Cáceres, 142 km

Complete live report

09:31 CEST   
Welcome back to the burning 'Hell of the South' La Vuelta a España stage four. From the already-cooking Almendralejo, where the peloton yesterday finished the longest stage of this year's tour, it's up North today for the shortest stretch in 2006. Cáceres will be reached after "only" 135 kilometres, and we all bet that the riders are very grateful for that today, as temperatures at the start rose already above 39° Celsius at noon.

14:39 CEST   
Nevertheless, short stages have always been known to be raced quite fast, so we may see the pros drink a lot of water again today - if they have the time to fetch the bottles at their team cars, that is... AG2R yesterday reported 20 bidons per rider, which also means more work than usual for the team staff. Intermediate sprints today will be located at km 39 and 90.

14:43 CEST   
Today's stage will probably again be the sprinters' business, with camisa de oro wearer Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) hoping to get a stage win and retain the jersey before the race heads to its first mountain stage on Wednesday. Davitamon's Robbie McEwen will also hope to score as he was duped first by Bettini, then by Ventoso yesterday. And after being the King of Sprinters in the Tour de France this year, that will surely bug him... He'll have to keep an eye on Bettini again, though, as well as on Valverde, as it's an uphill finish. Stuart O'Grady (CSC) could be up there, too!

This morning, the UCI performed doping controls on 45 riders from the teams Caisse d'Epargne, Phonak, QuickStep, Relax and Liquigas. There was no "adverse analytical finding" so they were all declared fit to start.

14:50 CEST    20km/115km to go
And so they did - all 189 riders have again taken the start today, with the bunch sent off in Almendralejo at 14.00 CET. After only a few kilometres, one bold Spaniard took off, hoping someone would come with him through the blistering heat. But no-one did, so Raúl García De Mateo (Relax-Gam) is currently alone ahead of the peloton...

His advantage increased rapidly to almost 4 minutes after 15 kilometres of racing - reason enough for Liquigas, Lampre and Quick.Step to put some pressure on the pedals and reel him in again to 2.50 minutes. Whatever that was for.

14:54 CEST    24km/111km to go
But now, things are calming down again and García De Mateo's breakaway continues. He's already back to 4 minutes as Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) gets a wheel change.

15:01 CEST   
Uhh... this will be a looong stage for him, although it's in fact pretty short. There will not be any beautiful countryside to see (or to describe) either: this stretch of land is simply barren. It's all straight, long roads in between dry fields of olive trees, planted like a checkerboard. Occasional haciendas in the middle of nowhere are the only highlights. No cow sightings to report, I'm afraid.

15:14 CEST    35km/100km to go
Cáceres has been visited by the Vuelta a few times already since its beginnings in 1935 - last in 2004. José Julia (Comunidad Valenciana-Kelme) won that year, in a chaotic finale with saw a 13-rider breakaway disintegrate on the last few kilometres before the line. It was September 21, and the latest news in the cycling world that day was that of Tyler Hamilton's positive doping result for homologous blood transfusion.

Our lonesome rider in Spain's 'Extremadura' (literally 'extremely hard') region is meanwhile turning his legs 5.48 minutes ahead of the bunch.

15:19 CEST   
It is now again Liquigas who is driving the bunch in pursuit of the Spanish breakaway rider. They're working for Luca Paolini and/or Danilo DiLuca.

The first hour of the race was accomplished at 42,2 km/h.

15:33 CEST    52km/83km to go
García De Mateo continues to increase his lead: it is now up to 6.33 minutes. The race also passed the first intermediate sprint of the day in Jaraiz de la Vera. The Relax-Gam rider obviously scored the most points (4), followed by Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), who take 2 and 1 points respectively along the way, as well as some bonus seconds.

André Korff (Gerolsteiner) is back in the bunch from visiting the race's medical assistance - the doc's car.

15:54 CEST   
And there is simply NO SHADE to relieve the riders in this merciless region. All we can see are olive trees, harvested wheat fields and a massive blue sky hovering above the horizon in the distance.

García De Mateo is giving his very best, hammering down. Poor lad, one can't help thinking.

16:03 CEST    75km/60km to go
Crédit Agricole is still lined up in front of the bunch - eight riders all for one, Thor Hushovd. With about 60 kilometres still to go, the Relax-Gam rider is still 5.30 minutes ahead of the field.

Drinking is crucial today, and we can see the helpers within the teams constantly moving up and down the bunch to see their team cars and stuff their jerseys full of bottles.

16:11 CEST   
In the distance, we can see the terrain going uphill for a small mountain range. Looking at the stage's profile, that should be the ascent to Pueblo Obando.

Riders are squirting out the rest of their bottles onto their helmets and faces, looking for a little freshness. The lonesome breakaway rider is now 5.30 minutes away, still pedalling hard. García De Mateo has been a pro with Relax since 2005 - and he surely knows that he will not resist to the sprinter's teams. But miracles do happen, don't they?

16:18 CEST    80km/55km to go
One Davitamon rider has joined the Crédit Agricole train leading the bunch in the blistering heat. They are currently racing through Roca de la Sierra, 55 km to go. White houses with brick-orange roofs - there is a small river, but it is not carrying too much water.

The second hour of the race was achieved with just over 40 km/h, and the lead of García De Mateo is down to 4.30. They're letting him "die slowly", as they say.

16:27 CEST   
Paolo Bettini has zipped up his jersey like many of the riders have today. But there are still no cows in sight.

Ouch - now, García De Mateo looks like he's really suffering. Not much juice left in those legs. His advantage is fading away, too - merely 3.20 minutes now.

16:33 CEST   
David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) gets some bidons in the back, and offers them to his teammates Garcia Acosta and Valverde. The latter will try to spare as much energy as possible for tomorrow's CG-decisive stage to ski station La Covatilla...

16:36 CEST    90km/45km to go
In the meantime, García De Mateo has passed the second sprint of the day at Puebla de Obando - but the bunch is now only 2.30 behind him.

Here they come: Hushovd gets a perfect lead-out and O'Grady is unable to come around him. 4 seconds again for the Norwegian, and 2 for the Aussie. Afterwards, they slow down again for a friendly chat... Noice.

16:38 CEST   
Hushovd therefore has and advantage of 15 seconds over O'Grady on General Classification - this might be important later in the final sprint in Cáceres.

16:43 CEST    98km/37km to go
It is slowly getting greener in this area. More and more bushes and trees, as well as undulating hills, finally make the landscape less hostile.

Olympic champion Paolo Bettini is munching away at an energy bar, talking to Luca Paolini (Liquigas).

16:49 CEST   
Some trees provide a little bit of shade on the left side of the road, and a few riders swerve to this side of the road to get some relief from the relentless sun - but only for 50 metres.

García De Mateo is still pedalling bravely, but with merely two minutes left on the last 35 kilometres, he won't be alone for long anymore.

16:53 CEST   
Oops - a Cofidis rider went down into the ditch alongside the road. It's Bingen Fernández. He doesn't look hurt and gets back on his bike, but he has a problem with his rear wheel. A mechanic from Euskaltel assists him and gives him a push to continue.

16:59 CEST   
García De Mateo's advantage is now under two minutes as he gets two new bidons. His team car will soon have to wait for the bunch again and align in the caravan with the others - once the gap is under one minute.

17:07 CEST    112km/23km to go
Mads Kaggestad and Mark Renshaw (Crédit Agricole) are leading the main field now, and can see the Spanish rider in the distance as the roads are straight again across a plain. The gap is only 1.20 minutes now with 23 km to go.

17:13 CEST   
Some information on the finish in Cáceres, before it is too late: The bunch will drive on a false flat downhill with 2 km to go, then there will be a left hand side 90° curve and another one soon after. A front position there will be important. The last k is a false flat uphill, something for big guys like Hushovd we believe. But we could be wrong...

17:16 CEST    119km/16km to go
Here they come - García De Mateo is now swallowed by the big group. And another Relax rider counters his teammates' move and jumps away! It's Jorge García.

17:18 CEST    121km/14km to go
García is in aero position, driving hard. He has 20 seconds.

17:20 CEST    123km/12km to go
AG2R, Davitamon and Crédit Agricole are all collaborating in the front now, keeping the gap low.

17:23 CEST    124km/11km to go
We're approaching Cáceres. The gap is being kept constant at 18 seconds. Two Davitamon riders are in front, followed be four Crédit Agricole.

García is hammering, but will he succeed? You never know.

17:25 CEST    126km/9km to go
But it is not enough, the bunch reeled the Spaniard in just after the 10 km mark. Now it's Markel Irizar (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in front, trying his luck.

17:27 CEST   
But getting away is practically impossible on these long, flat straights... 7 clicks to go, and the Euskaltel rider is looking back all the time. He won't make it. It's over.

17:30 CEST   
Now, the different trains are forming. Crédit Agricole still controls the situation, but these Vuelta sprints have been a bit chaotic lately, as many teams open up trains in the final kilometres for their respective sprinters. Valverde is seen in the upper part of the bunch now, too.

17:31 CEST    130km/5km to go
A few guys are breaking off the front, including an Astana rider. They have 50 metres.

17:33 CEST   
José Antonio Redondo (Astana Team) and Luis Pérez (Cofidis, le Credit par Telephone) have opened up a gap. Gerolsteiner is chasing now.

17:33 CEST    131km/4km to go
That was it for them - caught again with 4000 metres to go.

17:34 CEST    132km/3km to go
The peloton is now inside town. Left, a Milram train, in the middle, a Saunier Duval pounding in aero position.

17:35 CEST    133km/2km to go
Francisco Ventoso, yesterday's stage winner, is in second position, with the Milram's on his wheel.

17:37 CEST   
Now we're on the uphill. Milram still in front. Bettini comes to the front, as well as some Gerolsteiner riders.

17:38 CEST   
And Erik Zabel (Milram) wins!! Bettini was on Nazon's wheel, but didn't make it. Hushovd second, then Nazon or O'Grady.

17:48 CEST   
Just when everyone said Zabel was not going to win any sprint anymore - there he is. Good sprint also for Nazon, who had been a little too hesitant lately. This should give him back some confidence.

Big Thor keeps the leader's jersey for tonight; and tomorrow the GC contenders are expected to change the face of the race completely. Join us again for that first Vuelta mountain stage to La Covatilla - a climb that will surely provide for more action! Hasta la vista!


1 Erik Zabel (Team Milram)
2 Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole)
3 Jean-Patrick Nazon (AG2R)
4 Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC)
5 Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval)
6 Bernhard Eisel (Francaise des Jeux)

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