Ballan takes stage and GC
Vuelta a España riders were greeted with a day like no other thus far this Grand Tour. Stage seven started unlike the others with a cold temperatures down to 15°C from the usual 30°C and intermittent rain. After the first rest day on Friday, racers rolled out at an early start on Saturday to face the four categorised climbs culminating with the second ascent of the La Rabassa. It was the kind of day a Spring Classics rider could shine and in fact, that's just what happened.
Alessandro Ballan claimed victory and the overall race lead the first high-mountain stage of the Vuelta a España – 223.2 kilometres from Barbastro to Andorra. The 28 year-old Italian formed part of the day's escape group 18 kilometres into the day that was marked with four categorised climbs, including the mountain top arrival on La Rabassa, where he claimed his first win of the season.
"At the beginning of the season I did not think of winning a mountain stage in Vuelta," Ballan said. "It was not programmed that I had to attack, but when the breakaway began, I decided to join the attackers.
"The victory is a huge joy," he said before predicting, "I think that tomorrow the gold jersey will pass to the shoulders of someone that will be in the battle for the final overall classification."
Ballan more than made up his 2'30" deficit in the general classification from the beginning of the day and set himself up for a win with a solo bid at 209km. He left behind the likes of Marc De Maar (Rabobank), part of an early escape that also included Gianni Meersman (Française des Jeux), Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne).
The overall favourites were hot on Ballan's heels. Giro d'Italia winner Alberto Contador of Team Astana was the first to play his cards in the final two kilometres. Ezequiel Mosquera of Team Xacobeo Galicia closed down his fellow Spaniard for second on the stage, but Contador gained a precious five seconds on competitors like Spain's Carlos Sastre of Team CSC-Saxo Bank.
"I lost a few seconds, but nothing important when considering the entire race," said Sastre after fighting the challenging weather conditions.
"It was a really tough day, where the temperature has dropped greatly, rain was with us for virtually the entire route, and the pace was quickly despite being hampered by a constant wind in our faces - as we have had all along this race," said Sastre.
Ballan, who dedicated the victory to his daughter born in August and the rest of his family, now controls the overall lead by one minute over America's Levi Leipheimer of Team Astana and Frenchman and 1'21" former race leader, Sylvain Chavanel of Team Cofidis.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), who finished 19th on the day, also had something to say about the day's wet, mountainous effort.
"This first stage in the Pyrenees has been very difficult not only because of the course and the kilometers but most of all for the cold weather and the rain. I was doing well during the entire stage, but at 10km from the finish, I had a big 'fringale' which means having no force at all."
"When it is so cold you spend much more calories than with the heat, and I did not eat enough during the stage," he explained. "But in spite of this I did not lose too much time and I am still there fighting for the general classification.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of stage seven of the Vuelta a España.