Decisive first day in the mountains
Watch out - the Killer is back. After showing strong form for much of last year and winning the ProTour, Danilo Di Luca staked everything on capturing the Giro d'Italia title this season. The 30 year old Liquigas rider sacrificed his chance of Classics success in order to improve on his 4th place of 2005, yet things didn't work out that way; he finished only 23rd.
Two months on, he is back to the top of his game. Most would have listed Di Luca as part of a theoretical second rank of contenders for today's opening mountain stage of the race, yet he exceeded those expectations in winning at the Estación de Esqui La Covatilla in Béjar.
On a day when GC contenders such as Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and, to a lesser extent, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Tom Danielson (Discovery Channel) lost time on the final climb, the Italian outsprinted young Slovenian talent Janez Brajkovic (Discovery) to take both stage and the maillot oro of race leadership. Vinokourov's team-mate Andrey Kashechkin finished seven seconds behind them in third and slots into the same position in the general classification as a result.
"I had to watch out for Kashechkin but also Brajkovic," said Di Luca at the finish. "He was very strong today. I think Valverde and Sastre were not in super form and that is probably why they lost a little bit of time."
The Italian set things alight when he attacked with three kilometres remaining, taking Brajkovic with him and reeling in the lone leader Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval). The Spaniard had another go but eventually succumbed to finish fourth, 15 seconds back.
While he showed great condition this afternoon, Di Luca said that he is relaxed about the outcome of the general classification. "I am here to win stages and did that today, getting one. My main goal is to be in the best possible shape for the world championships. That is my principal objective. I am in good form now, but whatever happens, happens. My favourites for the Vuelta are Valverde and Sastre."
Brajkovic rode very strongly on the final ascent to the ski station and finished a close second on the stage. "I was actually very surprised as for the first couple of days I didn't feel good," he told Cyclingnews at the top of the climb. "But yesterday my legs were starting to come around. In the first few climbs today I didn't want to push too much, but rather save as much energy as possible. The plan was to help Tom [Danielson] on the final climb. When Di Luca attacked I tried to follow…in the beginning there was a little gap which I managed to close and then I just followed the wheel.
"Obviously Tom is our leader here," the 2004 under 23 world time trial champion continued. "That is my first priority - I don't think I am going to be capable of maintaining this kind of shape for the whole race."
Danielson looked a little disappointed with his 11th place at the finish, but was also philosophical. "I think it might just be a case of the first day in the mountains. This is a special race, a long race, so…
"It was windy and hard and just really hot out there. I didn't feel that super on the climb; I was okay, but not super. I am happy in that I didn't lose that much time despite having a bad day. This is a long race and the first day in the mountains doesn't say a lot."
Carlos Sastre finished 20 seconds quicker than Danielson but also lost time to Di Luca. He came in just ahead of Valverde to place 5th, a solid ride. "Today was a difficult day for everybody and a bit strange, too. It is the first time in a Grand Tour that was have started so early in the mountains and nobody was sure what was going to happen today.
"I did my best. The team did a sensational job for me today but in the end I couldn't do more. I was with Valverde because I think he that he is one of the most important riders in this race. It was a nice day and an important day for the team, again."
Sastre is just 29 seconds back overall and is clearly still in the hunt. But one who may definitely have lost his chance today is defending champion Denis Menchov. He crossed the line 3'37 behind and is now 29th overall, 4'02 off the gold jersey. That's undeniably a disappointment, but he was in a polite mood at the finish and willing to give his thoughts.
"I didn't see anything [about what happened with the other favourites]," said the Russian. "I was behind. I didn't feel good today. I don't know if it is just because this is the first day in the mountains…maybe my form has gone down [since the Tour]. We will see. That's life."
Oscar Pereiro was also philosophical afterwards when he gave his reaction to Spain's Onda Cero radio. "My sensations weren't too good or bad. The stage rhythm was pretty hard and in the end I paid the price of the last month [without competing]. At some moment, I thought I could have saved the day. It is not a disappointment at all because it was a realistic bet that I wouldn't be in the top positions.
That hectic post-Tour month he mentioned means that he may take a little bit of time to regain his racing sharpness, and thus didn't rule out a fightback. "We were saying that Alejandro [Valverde] was going to be our leader. But in the Tour I recovered 30 minutes, so imagine how little five minutes is. However, that said, now we have a clear leader to support."
How it unfolded
The Vuelta a España has finished twice in La Covatilla before today. Santi Blanco won here in 2002. The other time there was a finish in this ski station was in 2004. On that day, Colombia's Felix Cardenas won that stage over Santiago Perez and Roberto Heras (later winner of that edition).
Andre Korff (T-Mobile) was the first rider to abandon this year's Vuelta as he didn't take the start this morning in Plasencia. Korff was having health problems yesterday and it forced him to quit the race.
There were some movements in the first kilometres made by the Astana team riders. However, the peloton controlled those attacks and rode together for the first part of the stage. At the first intermediate sprint in Jaraiz de la Vera (km 31), Daniel Becke (Milram) was first with Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole) second and Angel Gomez (Saunier Duval) third.
At the first climb in Puerto de Piornal (km 50), a lead group was formed with 16 riders: Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Vladimir Gusev, Benoît Joachim (Discovery Channel), Sergio Paulinho (Astana), Pietro Caucchioli (Credit Agricole), Joaquin Rodriguez, David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Torsten Hiekmann (Gerolsteiner), Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel), Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), Eric Leblacher (Française des Jeux), Angel Gomez (Saunier Duval), Jose Luis Arrieta (AG2R) and Jose Miguel Elias and Angel Vallejo (Relax). They led by 1'28 over the peloton at the summit, where Vallejo crossed first ahead of Florencio and Joachim.
In Cabezuela del Valle there was the second and last intermediate sprint (km 79.8) where Joaquin Rodriguez crossed in first position followed by Xavier Florencio and Eric Leblacher. At that point, the breakaway's gap was around a minute. The lead riders started the Puerto de Honduras, the second climb of the day, and had 2'09 on the bunch at km 92. Meanwhile, Charles Wegelius (Liquigas) quit the race due to the hard crash he suffered some kilometres before.
Bettini, Florencio, Vallejo, Rodriguez, Gomez and Leblacher couldn't keep the pace of the other leaders and lost some seconds at km 98. Gusev, Paulinho, Joachim, Rasmussen, Hiekmann, Landaluze, Caucchioli, Elias, Arroyo and Arrieta crowned Puerto de Honduras 36 seconds ahead of the distanced riders, and around four minutes ahead of the peloton. At km 112, the lead group reformed and there were 16 riders back in front with 4'24 on the bunch.
The third climb of the day was the cat. 2 Alto de Lagunilla. Elias, Caucchioli and Paulinho were the first three riders at the summit (km 136) followed by Gusev, Rasmussen, Arroyo, Landaluze and Joachim. The gap to the CSC-led peloton was just 2'26 at this stage, and that prompted Iñigo Landaluze to attack alone, and he got a gap over the other seven riders. At km 150 (28 km to go), the Basque rider led by 55 seconds over his pursuers.
With 20 km to go, Landaluze remained as the lone leader with 1'30 over the seven chasers. The peloton, now led by Caisse d'Epargne, was around three minutes behind the Euskaltel rider. But when he started the climb of La Covatilla, he quickly lost ground and was caught at 13 km to go, with the bunch now less than a minute behind.
Sergio Paulinho and David Arroyo attacked the break and kept their chances alive, as Iñigo Cuesta (CSC) set a fierce pace behind to shred the peloton. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Oscar Pereiro (Illes Balears) were some of the early victims, and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) followed.
Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) bridged up to the two leaders at 6 km to go, as the favourites' group was reduced to just Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), Janez Brajkovic and Tom Danielson (Discovery Channel), Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas).
As Gomez Marchante eventually got rid of Paulinho and Arroyo, Di Luca made a big attack at 3 km to go followed by Brajkovic. These two caught the leader and left the rest behind, but Brajkovic did want to work at all. That gave Gomez Marchante the opportunity for a second attack with 2 km to go, but he ran out of legs as Di Luca dragged the Slovenian back up. They reached the final kilometre and Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) was able to join the front group, having left Sastre and Valverde behind.
At the finish, Di Luca was clearly faster than Brajkovic, crossed the line in first place followed by Brajkovic and Kashechkin. Gomez Marchante was the best Spanish rider in fourth position, while Sastre and Valverde came behind in fifth and sixth place.
Stage 6 – August 31: Zamora-Leon, 177 km
A typical first week stage with no mountains between Zamora and Leon. There are two intermediate sprints: Villarin de Campos (km 34) and Mansilla de las Mulas (km 156.5). This stage is a big opportunity for the sprinters without wins like Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Petacchi and others to raise their hands at the finish line.