Discovery Channel's new star moves into maillot oro
In a finish reminiscent of the devastating kick he unleashed to win stage 10 of the 2005 Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde overhauled Alexandre Vinokourov in a highly exciting finale at the end of today's seventh Vuelta stage.
Vinokourov went clear twice on the final Alto de El Morredero climb, once on the lower slopes and again inside the final two kilometres of racing. With 500 metres remaining it looked all but certain that the Kazakhstani would win the stage, but he ran out of legs before the line and was passed by Valverde, who certainly lived up to his Green Bullet nickname today.
The Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears leader had actually seemed to be suffering on the early slopes but he then clicked into top gear and drove the pace much of the way up the climb. Although a series of attacks came to nothing, he had more than enough speed to take the stage and vault from sixth to second overall.
"There is only a small difference today but with the time bonus at the line, it is important," said the ProTour leader after the stage. "I am happy with my victory and it is good for my confidence."
"What was most important today was to take some time and reduce the differences to the others. That's what I am most happy about. Winning here is important for the morale. It was like riding a classic on that climb.
"It was great with all the fans here today and the team worked well for me. It was phenomenal to win today. As regards Brajkovic, we have to take him seriously. He is good in the time trials and he's already demonstrated he's going well in the mountains. The stage on Sunday is the main hurdle. It's very hard and it will be important in the overall."
Valverde's rival Carlos Sastre (CSC) also looked to be suffering on the climb but came through for second, four seconds back, while José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) was a further two seconds in arrears. Young Discovery Channel rider Janez Brajkovic followed his excellent and unexpected second place two days ago with another impressive ride, taking fourth ahead of team-mate Manuel Beltrán, while a disappointed Vinokourov was sixth, 12 seconds behind Valverde.
Brajkovic had intended riding for Tom Danielson during the stage but the Discovery leader had a bad day and finished back in 36th place, 3'28 down. The 22 year old consequently had a free rein and this, twinned with his superb current form, saw him take over from overnight race leader Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), who cracked and lost 1'58 today.
Brajkovic seemed surprised to be leading his first Grand Tour. "I was very happy with how I went today. The first day in the mountains to La Covatilla went very well. I didn't feel very good at first today, I felt blocked, but as the kilometres passed I felt much better and at the end I tried to get some time. I'd like to say thanks to the whole team - the fact that I am in the leader's jersey is the result of all their work.
"I didn't dream about taking the jersey before starting this race. I came here to gain some experience, that was my first goal. I also came here to help our leader Tom Danielson…my target was to do that and also to finish the tour."
The Slovenian won the world under 23 time trial title two years ago and this strength against the clock plus his obvious good form in the high mountains led to some journalists pondering if he could win the race. He played down such talk. "I still think that I am a very young rider and not very experienced. The finish is two weeks away and in that time, many things can happen. We will take it day by day and see how my body will react.
"Johan is such an experienced person that I am sure he will guide me and guide the team in the right way. I trust him 100 percent."
Eight years ago Brajkovic's former team-mate Lance Armstrong finished fourth in the Vuelta and went on to dominate the Tour de France in subsequent years. He was asked if he thought that his strong performances here could also lead to him becoming another star.
"I don't know, but for sure I am going to do everything I can," he responded. "I am going to work 100 percent to achieve as much as is possible. I don't know if I am going to win a Tour some day but one thing is sure – I am going to give it 100 percent. We will see."
Carlos Sastre's team director Kim Andersen said beforehand that the plan was for him to "take it easy…follow, stay where we are. Sunday will be the big stage." In the end Sastre did precisely that, although it was not necessarily by choice. While he took a good second on the stage, he looked to be in trouble at times on the climb. He confirmed this to Spanish radio after the stage. "I ended up riding with very little strength. I am conscious that I have been racing many kilometres this year; I know that to have concentration and keep a fast rhythm is tough. But I am motivated that I was still able to be among the best of the race and it's important for me thinking of the future.
"When you have little strength, you must learn how to dose it out," he continued. "I'm already 31, I'm an old man in this sport but I'm still learning many things."
Sastre was impressed by Valverde's ride, specifically his finishing burst. "He demonstrated today that he is a super powerful rider and that he wins these kind of sprints with apparent ease," he stated.
Next home was Saunier Duval's leader Marchante, who also gave kudos to the stage victor. "I tried to win, like I tried on Wednesday," he said. "I was rather nervous; Alejandro [Valverde] was terrific and I couldn't win. It's a shame.
Although the general classification is starting to take shape, he feels the race is still wide open. "As I said the other day, this is just the beginning. Some [riders] were very good, some others a little bit worse and anything can change at any moment."
That much is true. Tomorrow's stage is relatively flat and should have little effect on the general classification. But the same can certainly not be said about Sunday's suffer-fest to the Alto de la Cobertoria; weaker contenders may have got away with small time gaps today, but seconds will become many minutes on stage nine. Forget the talk about a cooler race; temperatures may have dropped slightly as this Vuelta moved north, but the action is going to heat right up from this point on.
How it unfolded
This was the second time a Vuelta stage ended in Alto de El Morredero; the first was in 1997, another Leon-Morredero stage when Roberto Heras won, with Chaba Jimenez and Pascal Richard finishing behind him.
The right breakaway was made when Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole), David Loosli (Lampre) and Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis) took off after 25 kilometres. The peloton allowed the breakaway to go and the lead trio led by 7'47 at km 47. The difference kept growing and by km 60 the three leaders were 11'28 in front.
The three riders had a good advantage and crossed the first intermediate sprint (Toreno, km 101) with David Loosli first, followed by Laszlo Bodrogi and Staf Scheirlinckx. At that point, they led by 12'23 over the peloton.
At km 114 (40 km to go), the gap came down as the peloton began chasing the lead trio, with the difference around nine and a half minutes. At the second intermediate sprint (Ponferrada, 30 km to go), Bodrogi took the most bonus points followed by Scheirlinckx and Loosli. The gap was 7'48. The tempo was very fast; the average speed so far 43.8 km/h. As the bottom of Morredero neared, the distance between the leaders grew shorter.
At the head of the peloton, Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas) took command. Meanwhile, Loosli attacked the breakaway with 18.5 km to go. Three and a half kilometres later, Loosli led by 50 seconds over Bodrogi, 2'15 over Scheirlinckx and 4'08 over the peloton. The race began to go wild, and surprisingly, Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) appeared to be in a spot of bother, dropping back.
With 13 to go, a chasing group was formed at the head of the peloton, comprising: Luis Perez (Cofidis), Manuel Beltran, Stijn Devolder (Discovery), Ryder Hesjedal (Phonak), Joaquin Rodriguez (Illes Balears), Alexandre Vinokourov and Sergio Paulinho (Astana), Bernhard Kohl (T-Mobile), and Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre), 2'50 behind Loosli.
Later on, Valverde changed his tempo and his engines started firing, rejoining the first chase group with 8 km to go. At that moment, the others included: Perez, Beltran, Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), Carlos Sastre (CSC), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel), Jose Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) and Szymd, now roughly two minutes behind Loosli. Vuelta leader Di Luca was dropped and it seemed he was going to lose a few minutes by the finish.
In the final kilometres there were many attacks made by Mayo and Valverde, with Beltran not far behind. As Loosli was caught and left behind 2,000 metres before the finish, Valverde set the tempo while Janez Brajkovic (Discovery) and Vinokourov resisted the fast pace. With 2 km to go, Gomez Marchante also joined the lead group.
With just one kilometre to go, Vinokourov attacked the lead group and manage a small gap. The Kazakh gained a 15 second lead over his chasers but Valverde had other thoughts, as he closed the gap then left Vino et al. behind. The Spaniard crossed the finish line first, with Carlos Sastre in second and Jose Gomez Marchante third. Brajkovic finished fourth, becoming the new overall leader, while Vinokourov lost strength and finished seventh, 12 seconds slower than the stage winner.
Stage 8 - September 2: Ponferrada-Lugo, 181.6 km
There is just one climb in tomorrow's stage, a category 3 mountain at km 88 (460 m. above sea level - Alto de Ares). There are two intermediate sprints before the climb: O Barco de Valdeorras (km 43) and Quiroga (km 80), so the sprinters' teams once again have a chance before a very mountainous stage come Sunday.