By Les Clarke
It's been a short stint since the first rest day, but in between there's been action aplenty; another win for Alessandro Petacchi, a crash for Heras and mountain drama galore in the high country of the Asturias. Euskatel-Euskadi delivered on the promise they always show with a win to Samuel Sanchez on stage 13 and second to the same rider on stage 15, and Communidad Valenciana forgot about their troubled times of late with a win to Eladio Jimenez on the tough stage 14.
There have been more riders abandon the race, many of whom have left to concentrate on their world championship campaigns, while others have just found the going too tough after a hot first week, then a punishing stint in the mountains which hasn't finished yet. Belgian ace Tom Boonen is one of the higher-profile abandonments, clearly having one eye (or even two) on his form for Madrid on September 25. Belgian sprinter Tom Steels was flown to hospital after a nasty crash on stage 13, and obviously had to forego his place in the race - thankfully, the Davitamon-Lotto rider didn't suffer any lasting injuries. Discovery Channel's Jose Azevedo didn't take to the start of stage 13, and Saunier Duval local boy David De la Fuente decided he wanted out on stage 14.
Carlos Sastre, Francisco Mancebo and Denis Menchov now find themselves fighting for second place after Roberto Heras' amazing burst on stage 15 to establish a lead of four minutes and 30 seconds - this after crashing heavily on stage 12. Heras' knee was badly cut in the accident, which occurred after 95 kilometres and forced CSC's Jakob Piil to abandon the race. Resting in the pack while always keeping Menchov in his sights over the stages following his accident, Heras appears not to have suffered any lasting ill-effects of the crash, apparent during yesterday's stage. The three-time Vuelta winner rode a perfect mountain stage to put over five minutes into previous leader Denis Menchov (Rabobank).
Heras' team has worked in a similar fashion to the way he and his former team, US Postal, worked for Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. Heras has been the clear team leader, rarely left isolated on climbs, particularly after his nasty fall. Michele Scarponi and Joseba Beloki have used all their ability to keep Heras well in the hunt - for Heras it was then a matter of picking the right time to attack, which happened to be in the rain of stage 15.
But with two more heavy climbing stages, some hectic sprinting and an individual time trial to come in the run to Madrid, anything and everything is possible in what has been an intriguing race so far. Let the intrigue continue!
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