Valverde bolsters lead as Kashechkin cracks
Today's tough mountain stage to top of the Alto de Calar Alto was seen as a big showdown between the race favourites but it was Euskaltel rider Igor Anton who finally triumphed, taking advantage of the chess game being played out between race leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Carlos Sastre (CSC) on the final slopes.
The 26 year old Spaniard surged several times, being overhauled by a tussling Vinokourov and Valverde before trying again with 3.5 kilometres remaining and succeeding in getting a gap. Digging in deep on the tough gradient up to the observatory at the summit, he soloed to the line 23 seconds clear of Valverde, Vinokourov and his own teammate Samuel Sánchez, with Sastre conceding another five seconds.
Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), who started the day second overall, cracked early on on the final climb and finished 1'19 back, dropping to fourth.
Today's victory was the first significant win of Anton's career, and he was very pleased to achieve an important goal. "I have always dreamed about a victory like this, winning a stage in a Grand Tour in the mountains," he said. "Now I can be more tranquil. It is true that one of my objectives as a rider has been achieved.
"I didn't really imagine taking the victory, I was happy to be there with the favourites. Valverde, Vinokourov and the others were marking each other and I attacked simply to try. It was the first time I was in a situation like that and when I got a gap, I just went as hard as I could until the line, and was able to win the stage that way. To get the first big win is the most difficult and I am delighted to do so now, having being trying for a while."
The stage was marked by a big break which went clear early on, and on the final slopes Daniel Becke (Team Milram) and José Antonio Redondo (Astana Team) surged ahead in search of the win. Pressing on through a heavy rain shower, Redondo dropped his rival but was himself overhauled once the favourites started to attack each other, causing the pace to soar.
"When I went, I thought especially about my friend Roberto Laiseka, who also won a stage in the final week of this race," said Anton. "That is what I thought about when I attacked. I was also happy that Samuel Sanchez was in the group behind, putting the brakes on to disrupt a chase. That helped me a lot.
"I started cycling at a very young age and was always strong in the mountains. I have made a lot of progress and it was my climbing ability which enabled me to take this win today. I will try to take more wins now but without putting myself under too much pressure."
Anton moved up from 20th to 16th overall as a result of his success, but said that he is satisfied enough with what he has achieved thus far rather than chasing a high GC result. "I don't really think about the general classification," he stated. "It is possible now that I am in the top twenty but I am not really worried about that objective now. It is something I will think about in the future."
He was asked if he could see himself heading the Euskaltel squad, particularly as riders such as Iban Mayo have an uncertain future. "It is a bit early to become the leader of the team. I think that there are other riders ahead of me [in that regard]. It is true that I want to become a better rider and we will see what happens then."
Valverde took second on the stage and nabbed another time bonus to bolster his lead. He is now 1'42 ahead of second placed Vinokourov and Sastre, and is looking ever more likely to win the race.
"Vinokourov did what he had promised by attacking me, and he did it more than once, but I felt very good. This enabled me to answer without difficulty the attacks of the Kazakh rider, even though they were very violent ones.
"Today, like each day, I had the chance to can rely on the phenomenal work carried out by my teammates and I wish to congratulate them once more. I did not suffer at all from the drop in temperature nor from the rain, nor the possible consequences of a rest day. My performance today is a very important step ahead for me, psychologically, as this was the mountain stage I most feared of the three which remained.
"Taking into account how I spent today's stage, it goes without saying that I will approach the remaining ones with a little more confidence. As for my rivals, each day which passes gives them a little less time to try to outdistance me. But I do not doubt that they will continue to attack."
Team manager Eusebio Unzue was also very pleased with the day's result "The team continues to be very strong in backing Alejandro and today everything went perfectly once again," he said. "The bad weather conditions hampered more than one rider, due to the cold rain which fell for much of the stage. I believe that Kashechkin, a very thin young man, suffered as a result.
"Despite that, Vinokourov carried out his promise to attack. However Alejandro perfectly controlled the situation. Now let's hope that things will continue the same way, day by day, with the stages tomorrow and the next being very demanding ones."
Valverde gave a further reaction to Spain's Onda Cero radio. "I'm adding on some bonus seconds [to my race lead] and that is important. Vinokourov is the strongest of the others but I am getting there, little by little."
Another rider who is also making progress towards his goal is Discovery's Tom Danielson. The American came to the race hoping to fight it out with the GC contenders for a top result, but lost time early on. However he made several good digs today and will hope to step up another notch either tomorrow or on Thursday, with the hope of landing a stage win.
Meanwhile his team-mate Stijn Devolder finished tenth and dropped a place to eleventh. Like many of the riders, he was frozen and saturated at the finish. "It was very tough," he said, shivering. "The cold means it is difficult for the muscles to work properly."
How it unfolded
This is the second time that the Vuelta has finished in Calar Alto. The first was in 2004 when Roberto Heras won a very interesting stage followed by Santiago Perez and Francisco Mancebo. The route that day was exactly the same as today’s.
Two notable riders didn't take the start in Almeria: Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and Alessandro Petacchi (Milram). Cancellara had pulled out in order to concentrate on the world championship time trial, while Petacchi had broken his hand after punching the Lampre team bus in frustration on Sunday. Another six good riders didn't sign on today: Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Luca Paolini (Liquigas), Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), Cyril Dessel (AG2R), Bernhard Eisel (Française des Jeux) and Rene Haselbacher (Gerolsteiner). Therefore, there were 148 riders who started the third and decisive week of the Vuelta.
After many previous attacks before km 40, 14 riders created the breakaway of the day: Egoi Martinez (Discovery), Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank), Kurt-Asle Arvesen (CSC), Iñigo Chaurreau (AG2R), Pietro Caucchioli and Dmitriy Fofonov (Credit Agricole), Oscar Pereiro (Illes Balears), Sebastien Minard (Cofidis), Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel), Jeremy Roy and Sebastien Joly (Française des Jeux), Alessandro Spezialetti (Liquigas), Daniel Becke (Team Milram) and Jose Antonio Redondo (Astana). They had 3’52 on the bunch at km 50, but dropped Jeremy Roy there. At the summit of the first climb of the day in Velefique (km 56.3), Martinez was first followed by Caucchioli and Arvesen, meaning that Martinez started to close in on Caucchioli's mountains jersey.
The leaders reached the summit of the second climb (Calar Alto – km 88) 5’21 ahead of the peloton. Martinez got the most bonus points with Caucchioli and Pereiro behind him. On the descent of Calar Alto (km 110), ten riders led by more than five minutes: Egoi Martinez, Chaurreau, Pietro Caucchioli, Becke, Minard, Fofonov, Pereiro, Landaluze, Arvesen and Redondo.
The final climb started and Redondo and Becke attacked the break at km 126 (with 19 km to go). They were able to get a gap while Jose Redondo changed the tempo and left Daniel Becke behind with 13 km to go. It was not warm and it started to rain hard, and that was another rival for Redondo. The Astana rider led by 2’16 over the peloton with 8 km to go.
After Caisse d'Epargne had done much of the tempo making up until this point, Team CSC started to drive it in order to help Sastre on the last climb. Carlos Sastre made the first attack with 7 km to go. Further ahead, Alexandre Vinokourov counter-attacked but none of the two could leave Valverde behind. The attacks were constant while Redondo was slowing his pace. Landaluze and Igor Anton (Euskaltel) chased and caught Redondo with 5 km to go, capitalising on the hesitation within the bunch.
Anton followed a fast tempo and eventually got away on his own just after 4 km to go. Behind him were Redondo, Vino, Valverde, Sastre and Danielson. Igor Anton maintained a good pace and didn't look back, opening up a 39 second lead at one point. The Basque rider was very strong while behind him, no-one could get away of the rest. Anton celebrated with plenty to spare at the finish line and won the stage, while Valverde got second place and Vinokourov third. Valverde consolidated his overall lead, with Vino moving up to second overall ahead of Sastre, the two sharing the same time.
Stage 17 – September 13: Adra-Granada, 159.2 km
Wednesday’s stage will be the second of three important mountain stages. There are three climbs and a finale in the city of Granada. The mountains are: Alto de Albondon (Cat. 1 – 1,300 m. above sea level – km 37), Alto de Lanjaron (Cat. 3 – 660 m. – km 79) and Alto de Monachil (Cat. 1 – 1,510 m. – km 139.4). There is a final 20-kilometre descent to Granada. Monachil and the downhill seem to be the crucial parts of the stage.