Caisse d'Epargne's Iván Gutiérrez lost the lead of the Vuelta a Valenciana on Thursday after the group he was in was led off course by the motorcycle official in the final five kilometres of the third stage. The chasing group of 25 riders was bearing down on two escapees, Manuel Váquez (Contentpolis-Murcia) and Rubén Plaza (Benfica), and had brought the gap down to less than twenty seconds when they were led the wrong way at a roundabout and onto a highway which was filled with rush-hour traffic.
In a dangerous and chaotic few minutes, the groups raced on parallel roads until the chasing group reached the next exit where it rejoined the race route for the final two kilometres, but Váquez and Plaza were able to stay away.Váquez took the stage victory and Plaza overtaking Gutiérrez on the general classification.
The lost chance to overtake the breakaway all but dashed the overall classification hopes of the yellow jersey Gutiérrez as well as Astana's Alberto Contador. The Caisse d'Epargne, Bouygues Télécom and Saunier Duval teams filed a protest after the race, and the judges reduced the 21 second gap at the line to 16 seconds, the amount of the gap when the mistake was made.
The decision did not change the order of the overall classification, where Plaza now leads by five seconds over Váquez with Gutiérrez in third, 21 seconds behind. With two relatively flat stages before the finale on Sunday, chances to move up in the overall classification are slim.
"What happened is a real pity," said Caisse d'Epargne team manager Neil Stephens after meeting with the commissaires. "They explained to us that they understood very well the fact that the Caisse d'Epargne riders were the biggest victims of that incident, but on the other hand, the two breakaway riders were not guilty for what happened behind, and as a consequence nothing could be done.
"Races are sometimes like that, and that is not the first nor the last time something like that will happen, but I feel really sorry for our riders because they were doing such an extraordinary job to win that race. We were close to winning it and now we have probably lost it all," Stephens concluded.
Milram's Christian Knees was one of the riders in that second group, and had felt good about his chances for a stage win before the incident. "That was very unfortunate, but in the end I am just happy that nothing happened to anyone," Knees said. "I had really good legs, the race was going perfectly, and then something like this happens."
"Everything was chaotic after the misdirection and no one knew what was going on. I was happy when we got back on the planned race route, but by then it was too late to finish near the top."
Lampre's Patxi Vila was also in the chasing bunch, but wasn't sure the detour affected the finale. "Today mistake is unique," he commented. "It was not certain that we'd reach the attackers, but the error gave them a sure advantage."