Hushovd holds on to race lead
One of the most notable things about the field for this Vuelta a España is the high quality of the sprinters who are present, with fastmen of the calibre of Robbie McEwen, Alessandro Petacchi, Thor Hushovd, Erik Zabel and Luca Paolini all here. Yet for the second day running these names were foiled when Saunier Duval's rapid-finishing Francisco José Ventoso displayed exactly the right combination of strength, speed and timing to scoop his biggest career win to date.
Runners up Hushovd – who retains the maillot oro - O'Grady, Zabel and McEwen will rue a missed chance but in truth, the gutsy Saunier Duval team fully deserved the victory on this, the longest stage of the race. David De La Fuente showed some of the determination which earned him the most aggressive rider award in the Tour de France when he went clear early on with Enrico Franzoi (Lampre-Fondital) and Hervé Duclos-Lassalle (Cofidis). That move was finally neutralised with seven kilometres to go but another Saunier Duval rider, David Millar, then took a flyer with a kilometre remaining and stayed clear until 500 metres from the finish in Almendralejo.
Ventoso was the Spanish team's third wave, the 24 year old benefiting from another slightly premature move by McEwen plus his own good timing to get things precisely right on the uphill rise to the line.
"I am very happy to be with this team," he stated with a smile, keen to pay tribute to his Saunier Duval squad. "They did everything just right during the stage and in the end, I was able to win. We decided to have somebody in the early move and it was a very good strategy, one which paid off in the finale.
"David de la Fuente went early on and after he was caught, David Millar had a go inside the final kilometre. It was difficult for him to stay away due to the high speed, but then I went for the sprint and was able to win."
Ventoso said that this success and an important win earlier in the season made up for a frustrating 2005. "After my first year, I had a lot of motivation for cycling but I had a tough time last season and it was difficult for me. However with my win earlier this year in Bicicleta Vasca and now here in the Vuelta, it is very important. I am very pleased and am 100 percent motivated once more. I hope to make the Spanish team for the world championships but it is logical that if I am selected, I will be working for riders such as Oscar Freire and Alejandro Valverde."
Today's three man break mopped up all of the intermediate bonuses on offer but Thor Hushovd's second runner-up position in two days ensured that he retained the maillot oro. He was pleased, yet the strong final surge he unleashed when coming from a long way back showed that a possible victory was lost.
"I had a bad position and couldn't get the stage win," the Norwegian Credit Agricole rider explained at the finish. "I was too far behind coming in to the finish. I get to keep the jersey though because the team did a really good job for me. So I am happy."
Today's final kilometre was narrow and twisting, something which could have produced a big crash but fortunately did not. Hushovd and several other riders felt it was risky. "It was dangerous on the run in," he pointed out.
Third-placed O'Grady agreed. "Everyone was pretty tired, it was a long, hard day and then all hell broke lose in the last 20 kilometres. The last few corners were definitely on the limit, that is for sure."
Although the Australian has proven in the past that he is one of the fastest guys in the peloton, his move this year to Team CSC has coincided with pronouncements that he will no longer go for the maillot vert in the Tour. Today he also downplayed the notion of chasing the points jersey here.
"I'm not targeting it," he explained after his trip to the podium to mark CSC's ongoing lead in the best team classification. "I was just having one more crack today, trying to get the leader's jersey. I had a pretty decent position going into the last couple of kilometres. I did a good sprint, I was happy. It was just that two guys were stronger. Thor came past in the last 20 metres and he was really putting out some big horsepower. I needed him to have a bit of a bad day, though [in order to get the race lead]. I did everything I could, but it didn't work."
Despite his strong result, he'll most likely change his approach for the remainder of the race. "My ambition is not to go for a points jersey. I am not sure if I will go for another sprint, either…I asked to have a crack today and Bjarne let me have a go. But I am here to help out Carlos [Sastre], he needs me to be there for him. That's the priority."
The Vuelta a España is known for its unrelenting heat, particularly here in the south of the country. The searing sun is responsible for the somewhat arid landscape in this part of Spain, and it also makes things difficult for the riders. Indeed temperatures climbed to a blistering 42 degrees today, only slightly shy of the 45 degrees achieved when the race went to Cordoba last year.
Like many others, GC contender Oscar Pereiro crossed the line drenched in sweat, and he stressed the effect this can have. "The big thing about today is that it was very, very hot. I think the next few days may be the same. It makes things very, very hard for us, the riders can end up very tired as a result.
"I didn't do much today, it was a day to take it as easy as possible. My goal is to rest until the Covatilla on Wednesday, that will be an important stage."
How it unfolded
The Vuelta left Andalusia and welcomed Extremadura today. This was the longest stage of the race as the riders rode 220 kilometres between Cordoba and Almendralejo, with the latter hosting the Spanish Tour for the first time since 1997. Almendralejo means 'little plantation of almonds' in Spanish and the town is named after the trees that were originally planted in this area around 1200.
None of the riders abandoned the race after two stages, and the 189 riders who started in Malaga signed on today in Cordoba. After the descent of the first climb at Alto de Villaviciosa (km 6), three riders made a breakaway: Spain's David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval), Italy's Enrico Franzoi (Lampre) and France's Hervé Duclos-Lassalle (Cofidis). As the kilometres went by, the trio was able to increase the gap and led the race by a 5'23 advantage over the peloton at km 23. At the second and last climb of the day (Puerto del Aire – km 30), De la Fuente was first, Franzoi second and Duclos-Lassalle third.
The heat was a key factor during the stage. At 13:30, the temperature on road was around 40° Celsius. All the riders had to deal not only with a very long stage but with the sun that melted everything. Meanwhile, the three leaders kept a good pace and had a 6'25 gap over the peloton at km 59. At the first intermediate sprint after 82 km, De la Fuente crossed the line first, with Duclos-Lassalle and Franzoi in second and third, and the lead was up to 7'06, having come down from a maximum of 7'46.
At the second intermediate sprint at km 128, De la Fuente again took the maximum bonus points with Franzoi and Duclos-Lassalle behind as the trio still held over six minutes. The peloton, led by Credit Agricole, the current leader's team, never left the three men get too far ahead. At km 167, Duclos-Lassalle had a puncture and the other two waited for him. The lead group lost some more seconds and now led by 5'09 over the main group. 18 kilometres later, the distance was just around three and a half minutes as Credit Agricole, Davitamon-Lotto and Milram worked hard to reduce the gap.
De la Fuente and Franzoi got rid of the tiring Duclos-Lassalle with 16 km to go, and held on for another 10 km before they were swallowed by the hungry peloton. The sprinters' teams fought for control, with Quick.Step and Milram particularly prominent. Paolo Bettini was well placed with one kilometre to go, but an attack by David Millar (Saunier Duval) then threw the cat among the pigeons. Millar flew around the last few dangerous corners, but couldn't hold off the bunch and was passed with 500m to go.
As he did yesterday, Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto) hit the gas with Robbie McEwen on his wheel. But he was hindered slightly by Danilo Napolitano (Lampre), lost the momentum, and McEwen was forced to go too early. The Australian kept his nose in front until inside the final 100 metres, when a powerful Francisco Ventoso surged to the left and won the stage from Thor Hushovd, Stuart O'Grady, Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen.
Stage 4 – August 29: Almendralejo-Caceres, 142 km
A stage through the Extremadura region from the provinces of Badajoz to Caceres. The journey will be much shorter than today as the cyclists will race 78 fewer kilometres and will face no mountainous difficulties at all. It is a flat/undulating stage, almost perfect for the sprinters. There are two intermediate sprints: La Garrovilla (250 m above sea level, km 39) and Puebla de Obando (430 m., km 90).