Zabel at last!
Milram's Erik Zabel was first across the line in the fourth stage of the Vuelta a espana, a 142km dash from Almendralejo to Cáceres through gently rolling country near the east coast. Another scorching hot day, with temperatures in the high 30s and low 40s Celsius, peaked with Zabel out-sprinting race leader Thor Hushovd Crédit Agricole) and Jean-Patrick Nazon (AG2R) in an uphill finish that clearly suited the German's combination of fast legs and climbing competence.
Zabel credited his Milram team-mates with helping him to the win, "above all Sacchi, Ongarato, Velo and Petacchi too. They have been fantastic."
With a stage win to finally add to his tally of second and third places this year, Zabel said he wants "to finish this Vuelta a Espana because I love this race and because I think it's the better race to prepare the world championship."
Looking forward to that event, in Austria on September 24, Zabel added, "I think that the course in Salzburg is perfect for riders such as Bettini and Di Luca, but I think it's good for me too. I think the course is similar to the world championship in Lisbon [in 2001]."
As well as winning the stage, Zabel appeared to have mastered a language in four hours, telling a journalist before the race that he didn't speak English but then holding his post-race press conference in that very tongue!
The day's only significant breakaway consisted of lone rider Raúl García De Mateo (Relax-Gam) who escaped after just a few kilometres of racing and stayed away until 16km to go. It was a typical flat-stage 'suicide break' and was followed immediately by an escape by De Mateo's team-mate Jorge García. But the peloton was having none of it and AG2R, Davitamon and Crédit Agricole took the front to keep García's advantage to no more than 20 seconds.