Heras comes out on top

The top candidate showed he is ready to win again today: Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros-Würth) took...

GC takes shape as Menchov hangs tough

The top candidate showed he is ready to win again today: Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros-Würth) took the first mountain stage of the Vuelta a España in Valdelinares, beating Denis Menchov (Rabobank) by 13 seconds and David Blanco (Comunidad Valenciana) by 28. Bradley McGee (Française des Jeux) lost the golden jersey to triple Vuelta winner and climbing genius Heras.

Together with his team, Heras showed his spectacular condition on the last climb, the Alto de Valdelinares, and won alone at the ski station. Menchov could hold his pace until the last kilometre, where the Spanish rider made his last surge to ride clear of the Russian.

"Indeed the Vuelta is not over; It has just begun," said Heras post-stage. "This was the first mountain stage and the show is guaranteed, that's for sure. It was a very tough stage, ridden at a fast tempo. My team was sensational and I was able to finish the work they did during the stage".

Comparing this performance and his bad results in the last Tours de France, he said, "I don't know why that is. If only I knew it. There have been Tours where I did well and others where I did badly."

Sixth placed Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) suffered today, and commented after the stage, "I'll defend myself the best I can. My feelings weren't good today; I didn't have a good day. I lost time, but I didn't lose anything in my goal which is to win the Vuelta".

Luis Perez (Cofidis, 20th) seemed to be in denial about what Heras did to everyone on a comparatively easy climb. "Heras did pretty well, but it's not that he was superior to all of us", he said. "The Vuelta starts in Andorra, the Vuelta hasn't started yet. From kilometre 0 the tempo was very fast, so very fast and that's why there were big differences at the finish, because it wasn't a very hard climb."

Meanwhile, Euskaltel leader Aitor Gonzalez lost 4'01 to Heras, four minutes that will be very difficult to recover during the race. The 2002 winner is not at that level at the moment.

How it unfolded

190 riders took the start in Cuenca today. There were numerous moves early in the race as Pablo Lastras (Illes Balears), Guido Trenti (Quick Step), Koos Moerenhout (Davitamon), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) tried to make a gap. At the first intermediate sprint in Villalba de la Sierra (km 19), Lastras was first, ahead of Voeckler and Moerenhout. Later on, Angel Vicioso and Dariusz Baranowski (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel) and Charly Wegelius (Liquigas-Bianchi) joined the group. However, at km 43 the breakaway was swallowed. Three kilometres previously Simone Cadamuro (Domina Vacanze) abandoned the race.

At km 50, 16 riders made a big breakaway: Michele Scarponi, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Liberty-Würth) and Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile) were among the 16 leaders. Five other riders including Santiago Botero (Phonak) joined the break some 15 kilometres later. Meanwhile the peloton split in two groups, with leader Brad McGee (FDJ) caught in the second group. At km 87, the breakaways and the front of the peloton combined to make a big group, and the difference between the two main groups was 53 seconds at km 95. At km 103 both big groups joined together. At the same time, 13 riders including yesterday's winner Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) made another attack. 16 kilometres later Bernhard Eisel (La Française des Jeux) quit the race, as did Auger, leaving McGee with just five other teammates. Then the biggest surprise of the day, Floyd Landis (Phonak) abandoned the race at km 138. The Phonak rider lost a lot of time yesterday and with it, any hope of riding a good GC.

The race regrouped at km 136 but the pace was still seriously hard, with an average speed of around 45 km/h. After Teruel at km 152, the peloton stayed together, but Javier Pascual Rodriguez (Comunidad Valenciana) tried a lone breakaway. There was wind today and the dangerous echelons formed again.

Another big breakaway was made at km 154 when 22 riders joined Pascual Rodriguez. Five kilometres later, the peloton caught 17 riders and let go other six: Koos Moerenhout, Jakob Piil (CSC), Devis Miorin (Liquigas), Nacor Burgos (Relax Fuenlabrada), Benoît Joachim (Discovery Channel) and Eric Leblacher (Credit Agricole). This proved to be the right breakaway of the day. At the last intermediate sprint km 171, Miorin was first, followed by Piil and Burgos.

With 33 km to go (km 184) the gap between these six and the big group was around 3'40. The advantage kept growing and the foot of Cat. 2 Alto de San Rafael with 25 km to go, the difference was 5'45.

Piil, Joachim and Leblacher attacked the other three and made a gap on the climb, but gradually the peloton cut the difference and with 15 km to go, it was only 3'46. On the descent of the San Rafael, Leblacher missed a corner and crashed, forcing Joachim off the road too. Piil took over the race lead by himself as McGee was struggling to hold onto the peloton.

This was the first time the Vuelta went to Valdelinares, and at the foot of the climb with 9 km to go, Liberty Seguros turned on the engines with Dariusz Baranowski, Angel Vicioso, Joseba Beloki, Marcos Serrano and Michele SCarponi helping Roberto Heras. Liberty kept a tremendous pace that could be followed by very few riders. With 6 km to go Piil was still 2'25 ahead of his chasers.

The constant Liberty tempo changes and attacks on the climb were too much for most of the riders. So, only eight were left trying to catch Piil: Heras and Michele Scarponi (Liberty), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Paco Mancebo (Illes Balears), Juan Miguel Mercado (Quick Step), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and David Blanco and Carlos Garcia Quesada (Comunidad Valenciana).

In the final three kilometres, Heras made another huge change of pace that only Menchov and Garcia Quesada could follow. It didn't take long before the Russian was the only one who was on Heras' wheel. The last surge came with 1.2 km to go. Roberto went once again, causing Menchov to lose contact. The Liberty rider ended up crossing the line alone in first place and taking the leaders jersey from Australian Bradley McGee.

Stage 7 - September 2: Teruel-Vinaros, 212.5 km

The seventh stage between Teruel and Vinaros distinguishes itself for its downhill profile. Teruel is 1000 meters above sea level and the road goes straight to the sea to Vinaros, at 10 metres above seal level. There are four Category 3 climbs: Puerto de Carigordo (1600 m), Puerto de Sollavientos (1510 m), Puerto de Villarroya (1700 m) and Puerto de Cuarto Pelado (1660 m). The three intermediate sprints are at: Monteagudo (km 36), Cantavieja (km 91) and Montero Golf (km 180). It's a good chance for a breakaway to go on the small climbs early in the day, and it will certainly be a battle between the breakaways and the teams interested in bunch sprints, as the last 70 kilometres are fairly flat or downhill, and the finish line is by the sea. There should be no problems for Roberto Heras tomorrow.

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