Today was the third road race stage of the Vuelta a España, and also the third day running that the sprint finish produced an unexpected result. That Erik Zabel was in the thick of the action will not surprise anyone, especially given his 11 second and 12 third places this season, but few would have predicted that he would turn back the clock so dramatically and beat younger sprinters with better recent form.
It was, as he said himself, a big relief to finally end the drought in a major race. Zabel won the first stage of the Bayern - Rundfahrt - Tour of Bavaria back in May, but as his post-stage comments attest, this is in a different league altogether.
There is a special feeling about this victory because after a difficult season with many second and third places, to win here is very special, the Milram rider said after the podium presentation. It is also important because this is a new team for me. The victory is thanks to the work of my team-mates such as Velo, Petacchi, Poitschke, Ongarato and Sacchi, who helped me a lot.
When I went to the team I had the mentality to help Petacchi for the season, but after his crash in the Giro I had to change my focus and try to win again. I finally have a victory so it is perfect.
Yesterdays leg was the longest of this years Vuelta but Zabels win today came at the end of the shortest road stage, a 135 kilometre race from Almendralejo to Cáceres. Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) was second for the third day in a row, doubtlessly frustrated by yet another runner-up slot but, equally, glad to once again retain the race leaders maillot oro. Third place went to Jean Patrick Nazon of the AG2R Prévoyance squad, while CSCs Stuart OGrady was a fast-finishing fourth. The latter drops from second to third, with Zabel equal on time but overtaking him due to his win today.
The stage saw yet another long distance attempt to break the bunch, with Relax-Gams Raúl García De Mateo starting his effort after just two kilometres, building a maximum lead of 633, staying away for 116 clicks but being gobbled up with ten kilometres remaining. The inevitable bunch sprint followed, with Zabel proving that there is life in them thar 36 year old legs yet. To underline that fact, he plans to finish the Vuelta and chase a big result in the worlds.
I will do the world championships in Salzburg because I like to ride for my country there, he stated. The main objective of course in me coming to this Vuelta is because I love this race, but secondly it is because I still think it is the best preparation for the worlds. All going to plan, I will finish the Vuelta in Madrid, and then we have still a week to have a good rest and recover. I hope I will have good legs then, like I did in Zolder, Hamilton, Lisbon and, of course, Verona.
I am feeling happy and am hoping that the worlds will work out alright. Maybe the course could be a little too hard for me, but I thought the same before Lisbon and I was fifth there. Okay, Di Luca and Bettini are perhaps the favourites for Salzburg, but maybe I can take my chance too.
As has been the case since the start of this race, the sun was burning down again once more today. The riders have been battling dehydration as a result, drinking up to 20 bottles during each stage. Several of them have said that this could increase tiredness levels and so tomorrows first day in the mountains will be of crucial importance. Stage fives 178 kilometre ordeal is to the summit finish at the Estación de Esquí de Covatilla, a stage which Alejandro Valverde is looking forward to.
"Personally, I feel very well, physically and mentally. It is with great hopes that I will face the first mountains, and it will also be the first occasion to get an idea of the form of my rivals! The heat which accompanied us till now made these first stages harder and more difficult to manage than we expected them to be when we started from Málaga.
I imagine that tomorrow there will be some riders which will be in difficulty because of those high temperatures. All that I hope is that it will not be me or one of my team-mates! I do not think that this fifth stage can definitively exclude one or more riders from the fight for the victory in Madrid. On the other hand, I believe that the ninth stage, the one that will finish at the top of the Cobertoria and which is the hardest of these three early mountain stages, will do it."
As a result, the general classification contenders will be growing increasingly nervous this evening. As Valverde says, an off day tomorrow may not necessarily be fatal to maillot oro hopes, but it would certainly make things a whole lot more difficult for that fight.
However, that all lies ahead. For now, it is the sprinters Zabel and Hushovd who hold centre stage.
How it unfolded
Caceres's origins as a village are very old as historians estimate the first settlement in that area dates back to 25 B.C. Once a Roman colony called Norbensis Caesarina, Caceres was declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site in 1986 based on the ancient history of the city, which is a mix of Roman, Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance styles.
After three stages, not a single rider has abandoned the 2006 Vuelta - all 189 riders who started in Malaga took the start in Almendralejo for the shortest of all this year's stages (following the longest of all stages yesterday).
The Relax team was willing to play their chances of appearing on today's highlights and had Raul Garcia de Mateo force a solo breakaway at the very beginning of the stage. The peloton let Garcia de Mateo build a gap of 6:24 by kilometer 38. At the first intermediate sprint in La Garrovilla (km 39), the Relax rider passed first solo and Thor Hushovd (second) and Stuart O'Grady (third) swept up the remaining points.
The peloton held a calm pace knowing the solo breakaway was unlikely to succeed. The greatest worry for most riders instead was the extreme heat they suffered for another day (the temperature was 40º Celsius at the time of the race).
At the second intermediate sprint, in Puebla de Obando (km 90), the lone leader had a scarce advantage of just 2:32. Like the first sprint, Hushovd took second and O'Grady third. At km 112 (23 km to go), the gap between the leader and the rest was just a little bit more of a minute and with ten kilometers to go, de Mateo was caught.
From there, the wind was a handicap for the men who wanted to attack the peloton. Markel Irizar (Euskaltel) made an unsuccessful effort with 8 km to go. Then Team Milram pulled for a big tempo with 3 km to go and controlled the final and decisive metres of the stage in order to help the evergreen Erik Zabel win for the first time in this Vuelta.
Jean Patrick Nazon got a good position in the bunch sprint but Zabel honored his team's efforts and prevailed over Hushovd and Nazon.
Stage 5 - August 30: Plasencia - Estación de Esquí La Covatilla (Béjar), 178 km
The first mountainous stage of this year's Vuelta. The journey will have four climbs: Puerto de Piornal (Cat. 1 - 1,270 m. above sea level - km 52.7), Puerto de Honduras (Cat. 1 - 1,440 m. - km 100.5), Alto de Lagunilla (Cat. 2 - 940 m. - km 136.5) and La Covatilla ski station (Cat. Special - 1,960 m. - km 178 finish). There are two intermediate sprints in Jaraiz de la Vera (km 31) and Cabezuela del Valle (km 79.8). It will be the first key stage of the race and the favorites for the final triumph will have the first test.
"It is the first time that such a big tour reaches the mountains so soon," Carlos Sastre said. "It is an uncertainty for all of us who are here in this Vuelta. It will be a fun stage; we will have real tension."
Oscar Pereiro agrees. "It will be the day when I will see what I came for in this Vuelta a España. So far they [his rivals] let me go quiet, relaxed. Tomorrow will be a crucial day for me."