André Greipel once again underlined his superiority in the finishing sprints at this year's Vuelta a España when he thundered to his third success of the race in Puertollano on Tuesday evening.
The Columbia HTC competitor benefited from strong work by his team-mates, stayed ahead of a jumbled crash by several other riders close to the end, then comfortably outsprinted William Bonnet (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Daniel Bennati (Liquigas).
Greipel had started the stage in the green jersey of best sprinter but the classification was actually led by Alejandro Valverde, who was wearing the Maillot Oro today. Greipel had been comfortably clear of the Spaniard in that ranking up until the end of Saturday's stage; however, he and 54 other riders finished outside the time limit and were each docked 25 points under a little known – and hitherto unenforced – UCI ruling.
(UCI rule 2.6.032 states: "The commissaires panel may extend the finishing time limits after consultation with the organiser. In case riders out of the time limit are given a second chance by the president of the commissaires panel, those who are classified in the classification by points shall have confiscated the equivalent points awarded to the winner of this same stage to their individual general classification by points.")
Race organisers confirmed to Cyclingnews that the time cut was based on the average speed for the stage, which at 33kph gave the 'autobus' of sprinters 10% of the time of stage winner David Moncoutié's finishing time (5:09:22), or just over 30 minutes, to finish. Coming in at 39:04, Greipel was penalized 25 points.
That penalty dropped Greipel from 99 to 74, just six more than the total of Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard then placed fifth on the following stage to La Pandera and moved six points clear.
Cyclingnews spoke to both Greipel and his directeur sportif Brian Holm on Tuesday, discussing the points jersey loss prior to the stage and then its reacquisition afterwards. The interview below is a mixture of those two conversations.
Cyclingnews: How satisfied are you to take this stage and get back on top again?
André Greipel: First of all, I need to say it was a very sentimental day for me as I lost my best friend three years ago on this day. It was also the day when my Grandfather died, so I really wanted this victory today.
Today the goal for us was to get the win. My teammates supported me in that and we were lucky that there was just one rider in the breakaway. It was an easy day for us. It was a really tricky final with a lot of corners, but my teammates always kept me in the front and so there were no dangerous moments for me.
CN: You and many other riders finished outside the time limit on the Sierra Nevada stage, and were all docked 25 points. That really reduced your advantage and Alejandro Valverde took over the following day. What is your reaction to what happened?
AG: I think it was a crazy decision. It is not a penalty for every rider in the gruppetto, it is just a penalty for me. I think it was not the right decision.
CN: Have you ever heard of this happening in other races?
AG: No, never. And I think it is also no respect for the team, which worked really hard for all the points. We led it out for the intermediate sprints and we chased on one stage when 40 riders were in front. Reynes and Hansen chased the group in front of us so I could have a chance for another sprint. So I think there is no respect for the team as well…all the team members feel bad about the decision.
CN: Brian, what is your feeling about that ruling?
Brian Holm: I didn't understand it, and I never saw that before. I found out it was a new rule from the UCI which was started this year, and nobody knew about. Maybe I should have read the rules a bit better, but a commissaire here also didn't know the reason!
I realised yesterday that it was because they wanted to force the green jersey's team to work more in the mountain stage. I honestly really don't find that fair. We are working on the flat every day, and I don't think many people realise how hard it is to keep a peloton together. Normally when you do that [riding on the front], you are usually not a climber.
AG: I also think that the time cut on this stage was not enough. We did 5000 metres of climbing and the days before were also not so easy. I think we had about 65 kilometres uphill and the time cut was not enough.
BH: With this new ruling, it means we have to work so much on the flat, and also in the mountains. Can you imagine a typical stage in the Tour de France? You come from the Croix de Fer and then you go to Alpe d'Huez. So those 30 kilometres between – who is going to ride there?
There are going to be 60 guys in the gruppetto saying, ‘ha ha, you have got the green jersey and you have got to ride, because we are not going to lose anything.' Then you get to the mountains, Alpe d'Huez, and who is going to be tired – our guys again.
People need to realise that it is not one big happy family in the gruppetto. On Sierra Nevada, the day the penalty was applied, I said to our guys, ‘hey, you got to go a bit faster.' What happened then is that everybody started yelling at them, saying ‘take it easy, take it easy, we should stay together, don't go ahead.' So we will make a lot of enemies. If we have to make our guys gruppetto killers, it is not going to make our life easier.
CN: André, you picked up bonus points during today's stage as well as those for the victory itself. You are now 25 points clear of Alejandro Valverde - how confident are you of keeping the points jersey until Madrid?
AG: Well, I think tomorrow is also a stage where I can get points, and Madrid as well. But there are also two hard stages in the days ahead so I think that Valverde can get points there. We will see what happens by the time we get to Madrid.
CN: You have taken three stage wins in this race, so is this a new level for you as a rider?
AG: Well, it's a Grand Tour, and I think that three stages is a pretty big result. I came to the Vuelta to win stages and my team supported me in that, and my sport directors as well. So I'm pleased to take these victories.
CN: Looking back to earlier this year, you crashed badly at the Tour Down Under. Did it take you long to return to form?
AG: It took four months. The team gave me the time. I did a lot of rehabilitation and work-outs just to be sure that I was full recovered.
CN: What injuries did you have?
AG: My shoulder was dislocated, and I also broke something in my shoulder as well. A ligament was also damaged, but everything is fixed now.
CN: After this race finishes on Sunday, what is your plan for the rest of the season?
AG: I will do the Worlds. It is maybe not the best circuit for me, but I will go there to help the team. I think I can be of assistance to them. Then afterwards I will go to Paris-Tours.
CN: Do you think that could be good for you this year?
AG: Ah, we will see. I think that one day races are always difficult to predict.
CN: What about next season, as regards your contract situation and your goals?
AG: I will be with the team again in 2010. In terms of goals, I first want to finish this season and then think about next year.
CN: Is it complicated to go to the Tour with Mark Cavendish also being on the team?
AG: I think I am also fast, so why shouldn't I do the Tour?
CN: So there's no problem for the team to bring the two big sprinters?
AG: Of course, the team has to decide to but I think I am also good for the sprints. There is no point in just staying at home.