The Vuelta a España has gone from a wide-open race to a tight battle between three riders divided by only two seconds – and all that after nine stages of intense racing. During Monday's first rest day, the peloton finally had a chance to recover from the exceptionally high temperatures and the testing hilly stages already covered.
So far no one rider or team has dominated in Spain. On Sunday evening, after stage nine, Igor Anton of Euskaltel-Euskadi was in the red leader's jersey but in the same time as second-placed Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha). Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Doimo is third, only two seconds back. It is a close fight but yet only two other riders are within a minute of the leaders: Xavier Tondo (Cervelo TestTeam) and former mountain biker Jean-Christophe Peraud (Omega Pharma-Lotto), after some surprise lackluster performances by some of the race's big-name favourites.
Stage one brought Mark Cavendish his first leader's jersey in his first ever Vuelta, as he was the first over the finish line after the 13km team time trial. Held at night under the lights, the course presented some problems, and the final team didn't finish until nearly midnight. Garmin-Transition and Sky put in worse-than-expected performances, and Rabobank surprised by finishing third from last.
Cavendish wasn't the first across the finish line the next day for stage two, after being passed at the last second by Yuaheni Hutarovich of FdJ. As Rabobank's Oscar Freire said, “Hutarovich? That's the first time I've heard that name.” The sprint stage took the usual route of a four-man break group which got away early and wasn't caught until late on a very hot day.
Classics rider Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) won the Classics looking third stage, charging away from the field on the ascending finish with a fine solo effort. Rodriguez and Anton gave notice of their intentions in this year's Vuelta, as they finished second and third behind the Belgian.
Once more, an early group got away on another boiling-hot day, and stayed away until near the end. The stage also saw the first of the pretenders to the throne disappear from the stage, as Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck finished over 14 minutes down.
Anton declared his intentions on stage four, proving to be the strongest on the steep closing climb with a gradient up to 23%. After taking Spain's first win at this year's Vuelta, the Euskaltel rider disclosed he had reconnoitred this finale six weeks earlier. Gilbert and Rodriguez weren't far behind at the finish. It was another far-too-hot day, with the usual escape group. The biggest victim of the day was Carlos Sastre, who lost 1:34, dropping out of contention.
The fifth stage was expected to see Cavendish's first sprint victory in the Vuelta, but the loss of key teammate Bernhard Eisel to illness left the Manx Missile in trouble. Too early in the wind, he finished only third, as Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Transitions scored not only the win but an important psychological advantage.
The fifth stage started with a moment of silence in memory of Laurent Fignon. Once things got under way, the peloton was happy to let an escape group go on yet another scorching-hot day, finally pulling them back in with 13km to go.
Stage six was a rolling stage with a steep Category two climb near the end, and it had Thor Hushovd's name just written all over it. The big Norwegian from Cervelo TestTeam didn't disappoint, and took the sprint of a 71-rider group which contained few of the pure sprinters. Gilbert held on to his leader's red jersey for another day, and the usual “early-breakaway-caught-late” scenario played out once again.
Alessandro Petacchi may be 36 years old and suffering from the stress of a doping investigation, but he proved he can still deliver. He took the sprint of the seventh stage to add to this year's seven other wins. And once again, Cavendish finished only second. The day featured, of course, the now-traditional breakaway which was caught near the finish.
The Vuelta's eighth stage was overshadowed by news of the death of Team Sky soigneur Txema Gonzalez, with the team subsequently deciding to withdraw from the race. The race went on, with an escape group successful on this “medium mountain” stage. David Moncoutie (Cofidis) got away on the final climb to claim his third Vuelta stage win in three years. Philippe Gilbert said goodbye to the leader's jersey as he finished three and a half minutes down, and Rabobank's Denis Menchov also lost time and any chance of victory, finishing a few seconds behind Gilbert.
Anton took over the leader's jersey, but not without confusion and controversy. He and Rodriguez finished with the same time, with both believing the Katusha rider would take the lead, but Anton got it on better results so far in the race.
On Sunday once again a member of the day's escape group made it to the end on another “medium mountain” stage which feature a total of seven category two and three climbs. David Lopez (Caisse d'Epargne) was exhausted but able to hang on and take the stage nine victory. He had been part of the day's 15-man escape group, which started breaking up with 50 km to go.
Although the top three riders are so close, not all the others have conceded defeat. Fränk Schleck of Saxo Bank indicated he thought he could make up the 1:47 he is down. the second and third weeks of the Vuelta will show if he can do it.
The first part of the race was dominated by no single sprinter or climber, with each stage won by different team and by riders from many different countries. Still, after only nine stages, as the riders enjoy the first rest day, it is beginning to look like a three-man race for the overall title in Madrid on September 19.