First and third for Italians, no change in the overall
As much as this Vuelta is about the fight for the general classification, it also seems to be a battle for confirmation of good form and a high ranking place on the Italian team for the world championships later this month.
On day two Quick.Step's Paolo Bettini staked his claim to be numero uno with an unexpected sprint win ahead of riders such as Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Luca Paolini (Liquigas) and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon Lotto). Then three days later Danilo di Luca (Liquigas) underlined his candidature with a mountain-top win at the Estación de Esquí La Covatilla. Now, today, it was the turn of Paolini, bronze medalist in Verona two years ago, to show that he also deserves a big place on the squadra azzura.
"This is a very special victory for me," the 29 year old stated after the podium ceremony. "It is my first stage win in a big Tour and comes at a very important time in the season, with the world championships coming up. It is good to get ProTour points and is overall a very important win to get."
Paolini had infiltrated a twelve man breakaway which went clear after 78 kilometres, building a maximum lead of 11'30. After the attacking started close to the line, he went with four kilometres remaining and soloed in five seconds ahead of Bart Dockx (Davitamon Lotto) and Bettini. Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel) and David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) were a further three seconds back, with the rest of the break coming in in dribs and drabs behind. The peloton were a full 15'04 down.
"There were some very fast riders there such as Bettini, Eisel and Nazon and so I didn't want to wait for them to make their move," he stated, when asked about his tactics near the end. "I decided to go early and it worked out well for me.
"There are other stages which suit me in this Vuelta but I want to be careful not to force my legs too much, and therefore arrive at the world championships tired."
Dockx was second and said afterwards that while the day was an encouraging one for the team, that he was frustrated by the fact that he seemed to be marked by Bettini in the final kilometres. "There was one third category climb today and we had Horner in the breakaway. But the peloton were chasing and chasing, Cofidis and Lampre, and they caught them. Then I attacked and I got 12, 13 guys with me.
"There were a lot of attacks in the last kilometres and then Paolini went away. I went after him but I couldn't catch him with Bettini sitting on my wheel. They are friends, and I think they spoke together before the finish. Bettini wouldn't ride, and I got second.
"There is only one place that is important and that is first. I am a little bit disappointed because I had really prepared for this race today. But in the end I have to make do with second."
His directeur sportif Mark Sergeant said that he was pleased by the Davitamon-Lotto riders' efforts, even if they didn't get the win. "The team did well today – Chris [Horner] was in the first breakaway and then we had guys in the second. In recent days the riders couldn't get into good break but they did it today and rode well. Bjorn is not 100 percent…this finish would have been good for him. Bart was good, but he was unlucky to have been caught between two friends. Anyway, we will keep on trying and see what happens."
If Dockx was frustrated, Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas) seemed even more so. He came home as part of the main bunch but had been up the road early on with Horner and six others, trying to chase a stage win.
"The day kind of sucked, in the end. I made it into a breakaway but it didn't get going. I don't know why Milram and Lampre went to the front and brought that back. I could understand if they put themselves up there riding and trying to bring things in for a sprint, but if you close it down like that with everything that they had, all that is going to happen in the end is that another group goes and they have no-one in there either! And that is what happened.
"It is unfortunate for me. I felt good. But this year seems to be like that all the time. Any break I get into early on seems to be brought back after 25 kilometres; then a new one goes and I am obviously not in that one. But I will keep trying. I am just going to take things day by day, see how I feel each morning and take it [attacking versus staying in the bunch] from there."
Caisse d'Epargne rider Arroyo made it into the move and in doing so, once again took pressure off his team and forced others to chase. He had started the stage 14'09 back and once the gap went out to 11'30, the Astana team of Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin had to ride in order to protect their positions. In the end he gained 8'46 and moved up 14 places to 13th overall.
However his day was not without incident, as he told Onda Cero radio: "At first, the mission was simply to get in the breakaway and that's what I did. I crashed at a roundabout at some point of the race…the ground was wet and I lost control of the bike. It took me a bit of time to recover from that."
For ongoing race leader Alejandro Valverde and the rest of the general classification riders, it was a day to stay out of trouble. The first individual time trial beckons in two day's time; the clock is ticking for the next big part of this Vuelta, and it seems that keeping powder dry and legs fresh is the big goal until then.
How it unfolded
Guadalajara is a city founded by the Arabs in the eighth century. Its name comes from the Arabic word that can be written as "Wad-al-Hayara", which means river of stones. In ,1085 the city was conquered by the Christians who fought for years against the Arabs for its control until 1212. That year, in the battle of Navas de Tolosa, the Christians finally took control of the city. In last year's Vuelta, it was the start city of the last time trial between Guadalajara and Alcala de Henares where Ruben Plaza won. Roberto Heras was second and later disqualified for failing the doping test that day.
All the 163 riders who finished the stage in Burgos yesterday took the start today. There were many attacks at the start of the stage but none was successful. On the only climb of the day, the Alto de Santibañez de Ayllon (1,430 m. above sea level – km 66.4), the peloton was together with yesterday's winner Egoi Martinez taking the points ahead of mountains leader Pietro Caucchioli. But soon after (km 78), 11 riders got a breakaway going that proved to be the right one: Vladimir Gusev (Discovery), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Luca Paolini (Liquigas), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel), Bart Dockx (Davitamon), Kevin Hulsmans (Quick Step), Bernhard Eisel (Française des Jeux), Bjorn Leukemans (Davitamon), Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner), Ian McLeod (Française des Jeux) and Jean Patrick Nazon (AG2R).
David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) bridged up to this group at km 85. Gradually, the difference between the leaders and the peloton grew. The 12 riders led by 9'53 at km 119 and by 11'40 at km 128. Up until this point, Caisse d'Epargne had been riding a steady tempo because it had the best placed rider on GC in the break. That forced Astana to come to the front to protect its GC riders, and the gap started to come down again. But the dozen in front were not going to be caught.
Gerolsteiner experienced several abandons during today's stage: Markus Fothen, Sven Montgomery and Andrea Moletta all quit the race.
At the second intermediate sprint in Yunquera de Henares (km 153), Nazon was first followed by Hulsmans and McLeod. The attacks started at 13 km to go when Eisel went with Paolini on his wheel. But then Hulsmans came to the front and kept the pace high enough to discourage any further attacks until 6 km to go.
Haussler started the attacking at that point, but wasn't good enough to get clear, and when Luca Paolini played his card with 4 km to go, he was gone. The Italian got a small gap and the rest didn't react immediately, enabling Paolini to ride away. Dockx and Bettini chased Paolini, but with Bettini not working with the Belgian, it was nothing doing. Paolini was unstoppable, and the Liquigas rider crossed the line, celebrating by kissing his wedding ring. Bart Dockx ended up second together with Paolo Bettini third.
Stage 13 – September 8: Guadalajara-Cuenca, 180 km
Stage 13 should be a good one for men not well positioned on the GC, as it finishes in Cuenca, a place where a successful breakaway is possible. The stage will have three climbs: Alto de la Tendilla (Cat. 3 – 1,050 metres above sea level – km 31), Alto de Corcoles (Cat. 3 – 1,000 m. – km 60.2) and Alto del Castillo (Cat. 3 – 1,120 m. – km 167.2). Alto del Castillo could be a key part of the stage for the riders who want to win tomorrow. Valverde and the rest of the top riders should have a calm day.