Paulinho bounces back into form with excellent win
Three out of three. The Astana team's victorious run in the Vuelta continued today when Sergio Paulinho triumphed, achieving his best result since taking silver in the Olympic road race just over two years ago. After standing on the podium in Athens the 26 year old Portuguese rider has had no wins of note, the highlight of a rather sparse palmares being eighth on the Mont Ventoux stage of the Dauphiné Libéré this year.
That all changed today. He infiltrated a large break which went clear in the first hour of racing and build up a maximum lead of 9'07, a gap which enabled Caisse d'Epargne's Vladimir Karpets to temporarily become the virtual race leader. Paulinho stopped working for a while on the instructions of Astana directeur sportif Neil Stephens, but later on was given a green light to contribute once more.
In the finale he benefited from the local knowledge of the team's other DS Herminio Diaz Zabala in choosing the perfect moment to attack, surging clear just inside the final kilometre and hitting the line two seconds ahead of Davide Rebellin (Liquigas) and Bouygues Telecom's Clasica San Sebastián winner Xavier Florencio.
"I am delighted to get this victory," he told the media afterwards. "The final two kilometres were very tough as the group was very big and everyone wanted to win. I knew that the last part was pretty hard so I waited for the right moment to attack and win the stage.
"We had a team meeting this morning and our directeur sportif Herminio Diaz Zabala told us what the course was like at the end – he lives near here. So I knew what to expect."
To date, Paulinho's most successful year was that season in 2004 when he won the national TT champs, took two stages in the Tour of Portugal and then went on to finish just behind Paolo Bettini in the Olympic road race. He said today that he hoped his success in Santillana del Mar would get things moving once again.
"This is probably the most important result since the silver medal in the Athens Olympics," he stated. "I am very happy with this win, it is also a victory for the team. Astana are very happy.
"Last year was my first in the team [then called Liberty Seguros Würth – ed.] and it was a very difficult year for me. I was sick a couple of times and that made things tough. However I am very happy with my condition now and this win is a big boost. I hope to build on this, go for another stage here and take more victories in the future."
Paulinho was briefly sidelined from racing this year when his name surfaced in relation to the Operación Puerto investigations. His former team manager was Manolo Saiz, who was arrested in connection with the affair, and he and several others on the squad were provisionally suspended. However he was later cleared by the UCI and was able to return to racing, building form for what has been a successful showing in this Tour of Spain.
Perhaps inevitably, he was asked about the investigation and also if he would dedicate his win to Saiz. "Manolo is a person who is very important to me," he answered. "The truth is that what happened with him has been very hard for all of us. But it is thanks to him that I signed with the team last year, so I would like to dedicate this win to him.
"As regards the team not being allowed to ride the Tour, I think the decision was very tough for us. We prepared very well to win the Tour with Vinokourov but in the end we could not take part. However we kept working, thinking of the future and now we will try to win the Vuelta. We arrived at the start here very motivated to do well and now Vinokourov and Kashechkin are very well placed. We will try to win the overall and also get more stages."
Team DS Neil Stephens once again found himself celebrating a stage victory, the latest after Vinokourov's triumphs in Lugo on Saturday and again at Alto de la Cobertoria, one day later. "That's three in a row now, so far!" he said, 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."
One of the many riders also gunning for the win was Francisco José Ventoso. He already triumphed on stage three and was lying fourth in the points classification this morning, 52 off the total of leader Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole). The Spaniard clocked a total of eight in winning the two bonus sprints en route and would have noticed up another 25 had he been first to the line. However despite the assistance of Saunier Duval team-mate David Millar, things didn't work out on this occasion.
"The final was very spectacular," he told Cyclingnews just finishing fifth. "The last few kilometres were very beautiful, as you might expect from Cantabria. David did a lot of work for me but unfortunately I wasn't able to repay those efforts with a win.
"The last few kilometres were very fast. I had a lot of riders to mark and when the move went in the final kilometre, I didn't have enough left to go with that."
Ventoso had covered an attack by Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) just before the flat and had nothing left to answer Paulinho's surge. When Millar crossed the line, Ventoso made a point of thanking him, even apologising for things not working out.
"I was on the limit most of the day," said a sweat-soaked Millar. "I was really strong, but also on the limit. I knew I wasn't going well enough to win, so I had to make a decision. I figured it would be easier to try to keep it together for as long as possible to help Fran. He is a sprinter, he can't handle repeated accelerations, but if we go at one speed that helps him.
"We tried, anyway. Those are the sort of days that bring you form…well, they either bring you form or f**k you! I haven't done that in a long time, I had forgotten how hard it was. We were going very fast out there. It was humid, too. That made it tougher again."
Although the bunch rolled in just under four minutes down, there was little change in the general classification. Karpets and Paulinho move up to ninth and tenth overall but otherwise the status quo remains, with the main contenders happy to mark each other and save their strength for now. Just ten stages have elapsed in this year's race, so there is plenty of time yet for a big showdown between top dogs such as ongoing leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Andrey Kashechkin, Carlos Sastre (CSC), José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) and Alexandre Vinokourov.
How it unfolded
Today's 10th stage finished in Altamira, whose caves are famous worldwide for their ancient paintings. These painting are considered one of the very first kinds of art in Europe in prehistory, and scientists estimate that they are between 14,000 and 17,000 years old.
170 riders took the start in Avilés as Marcel Strauss (Gerolsteiner) didn't start today's stage. After numerous attacks in the first hour, 15 riders created the right escape at km 40: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Nicki Sorensen (CSC), Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), Dmitriy Fofonov (Credit Agricole), Sebastien Joly (Française des Jeux), Evgeni Petrov (Lampre), Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears), Sebastien Minard (Cofidis), Vladimir Gusev (Discovery), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Dario Cioni (Liquigas), David Millar (Saunier Duval), Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval), Sergio Paulinho (Astana). Meanwhile, Anthony Charteau (Credit Agricole) and Rony Martias (Bouygues Telecom) abandoned the race.
The gap between the breakaway and the peloton kept growing, and the biggest difference was more than nine minutes at km 112. Vladimir Karpets had started the day at 6'50 behind his captain Valverde on GC, and was now the virtual leader. That prompted CSC to start chasing in the peloton in order to protect Carlos Sastre's position on GC, and the break's lead started to fall.
At the first intermediate sprint in Llanes (km 120.4), Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval) crossed in first place followed by Sebastien Joly second and Dario Cioni third. The peloton worked hard and reduced the gap to 4'50 at km 151. It came down to 3'30 with 30 km to go, and CSC eased off the gas as the break was well under control.
At the second intermediate sprint in Cobreces (km 179), Ventoso was again first with David Millar and Evgeni Petrov behind. The day's only climb, the Cat. 3 Alto del Mirador de Cildad, started and Millar rode tempo for his teammate Ventoso until Mayo, Joly, Petrov and Rebellin attacked, without success. The break regrouped on the descent and Millar went to the front to keep the pace high before the finale.
The road started to climb with 5 km to go, and a kilometre later, Dario Cioni and Sebastien Minard made the first attack. That signaled a frenzy of attacks, with everyone who still had the legs trying their chances. Sorensen, who had enjoyed a fairly easy day in the break, tried a couple of times, but was unable to break clear.
Ventoso was able to mark Mayo when he attacked with just over 1 km to go, but when Sergio Paulinho countered at 800 metres to go, no-one had an answer. The Astana rider held off a late charge by Davide Rebellin to win his first stage in two years, and Astana's third stage in a row. This also marked the first time that an early breakaway had lasted all the way in this year's Vuelta.
The peloton came in at 3'54 led by Florian Stalder (Phonak), meaning that Karpets (9th at 3'02) and Paulinho (3'42) moved up into the top 10 on GC.
Stage 11 - September 6: Torrelavega-Burgos, 173.6 km
There are three mountains in stage 11 that ends in Burgos, a city that has hosted so many Vuelta finishes. The climbs are Puerto de la Braguia (Cat. 1 – 720 m. above sea level – km 39), Puerto del Escudo (Cat. 1 – 1,011 m. – km 72.5) and Puerto de Carrales (Cat. 3 – 1,030 m. – km 86.7). The finale will be in an ideal place for the sprinters, as the finishing straight is 1.5 km and flat. Despite the mountains, it should be a day for the sprinters, and a calm day for Valverde and the other favourites.