By Shane Stokes
Today was the third stage running where an Astana rider triumphed in this year's Vuelta a Espana. As might be expected, the team were very happy with Sergio Paulinho's win, not least the rider himself.
"This is probably the most important victory achieved since the silver medal in the Athens Olympics," stated the Portuguese rider. "I am very happy with this win, it is also a victory for the team. Astana are very happy. I am going to try to get more stage victories now."
Directeur sportif Neil Stephens was in a similar mood. "That's three in a row now, so far!" he told Cyclingnews, clearly delighted. "It was a bit of a surprise today. He went in the break to cover it and make sure we had some sort of representation there. He started to ride but then when we realised that Karpets was there and up on GC, I told him he wasn't allowed to do any more, although he wanted to.
"When it got below four minutes again I let him ride because he wanted to participate in the breakaway. And then he showed his strength in the finish."
"The plan for now is just to wait until the time trial. That was the situation today, there was no real big objective other than covering the break and making sure we had some sort of representation there. After Sergio Paulinho did his work as a domestique earlier on, it paid off for him today with a victory."
Stephens was then asked who he thought the leader would ultimately be in the team, given that Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin are second and fifth overall.
"It is impossible to say at this point. It doesn't really matter who it is, actually. Both have their good points and their bad points; the bad point about Vinokourov is that he is a minute and a half down, but the good thing is that he has shown before that he is a real proven rider for three-week stage races. Kashechkin is in a better position in the general classification but he has yet to prove that he is capable of riding for GC in a three week stage race."
As regards who is likely to do a better time trial in the race against the clock later this week, Stephens wouldn't be drawn as to a prediction. "Alex was better in Germany, but Kash is no slouch. We will see."
Paulinho hinted that the successes may have been motivated by the team missing out on the Tour de France. "For me the decision [to exclude some riders from the Tour team and thus leave them with too small a squad to start – ed.] was a little tough and was hard for us. We prepared very well to win the Tour with Vinokourov but in the end we could not take part. But we kept working, thinking of the future and now we will try to win the Vuelta. We arrived at the start here very motivated and now Vinokourov and Kashechkin are very well placed. We will try to win and also get more stages."
He was asked how the two team leaders compared to rivals such as Valverde and Sastre. "Well, Vinokourov has proved that he is getting stronger day by day. Valverde and Sastre are two very good riders and we know it will be tough to win the race. We will do everything we can to take the jersey and win overall, though."
Next year, Paulinho will ride for the Discovery Channel team. "[Johan] Bruyneel offered me a very good deal, so I have signed a contract for one season, because I did not think that it was possible that the Astana team would continue," he explained.