GC battle sorted on 12.6-kilometre cloud covered brut
Vladimir Efimkin stomped clear of the his escape companions on the Lagos de Covadonga climb and successfully held off a raging GC battle to grab the stage win and overall leader's maillot oro. The 26 year-old Russian of Caisse d'Epargne finished over a minute clear of the chase led by Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank).
Carlos Sastre's Team CSC did the majority of the pace-making on the final climb. The efforts distanced GC favourites Australian Cadel Evans (seventh) and Spaniard Oscar Pereiro (11th).
The day was marked by a 30-man escape and the final 12.6 kilometres, up the Lagos de Covadonga. The group was holding on to a gap of two minutes at the base of the hors catégorie climb when Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) launched an attack, thereby marking the end of the group's harmony.
Clouds quickly covered the road as the stage kicked up to 1,110 metres. One by one the escapees, which included Americans Chris Horner and Christian Vande Velde, were picked up by the chase led by CSC's Iñigo Cuesta. However, one man struck clear, Efimkin.
The rider, whose only other pro win this season came in the morning stage of the Euskal Bizikleta, showed impressive rhythm up the slopes that touched 15 percent gradient in parts. He had to keep his composure if he was to last the ten-plus kilometres to the top of the Asturian climb. Behind the Russian, CSC was scorching the roads for the eventual launch of Sastre.
In an atypical style, Sastre accelerated at just over seven kilometres remaining with his rivals left scrabbling to grab his wheel. Visibly strongest was another Russian, Denis Menchov. Menchov captured the Spaniard with Pereiro slightly off the pace. Sastre cooled his jets, letting his team-mates take up the pace once again, but he succeeded in showing he was on form, as did Menchov.
The move whittled down the front group and se tup the race for counter-attacks. As Evans was scrabbling to come to terms, Menchov launched an acceleration of his own that formed the key chase. Behind Efimkin were Menchov, Sastre and, briefly, team-mate Chris Anker Sørensen, and Saunier's Piepoli. Evans, José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Oscar Pereiro and Liquigas' Manuel Beltrán and Franco Pellizotti were chasing behind. Sørensen was pulled back from the early escape but put in every bit of his resources into helping Sastre maintain his position. His limits were maxed when Menchov hammered one more time in an attempt to drop Sastre at less than two kilometres. Sastre and Piepoli were able to crawl back while Efimkin was clear to win by just over a minute.
Piepoli, who was fighting more for the stage than GC position, held off a resurgence of Stijn Devolder. The Belgian was part of the early escape, but he refused to crack and used the slight ease in the gradient to recapture the leaders in the finale for a third place finish.
Pereiro finished almost two minutes back of the winner and a minute behind his rivals, but was pleased with his team-mate's win. "It is a big challenge for him to try winning this Vuelta a España, but he is got one minute [of advantage] over the favourites," noted Pereiro.
"Our team is very strong. Efimkin was in the front doing a tremendous stage; "Chente" [Garcia Acosta] and Horrach, too. Vladimir [Karpets] and I are waiting for our moment with a favourable time trial in Saragossa. Hypothetically, the next uphill finishes are more favourable for us."
Pereiro was impressed with Evans. "Cadel Evans indeed came to win the Vuelta a España. This first week after riding the Tour [de France] is when he will suffer, as he is getting fit. I think he did things well after the Tour, and he made his move today. When he put his team to work, he showed he didn't come here to go for a walk."
How it unfolded
Lagos de Covadonga is a famous climb that was part of the Vuelta for the first time in 1983. Many known riders succeeded in this mountain including illustrious Pedro Delgado, Laurent Jalabert and Pavel Tonkov.
Lorenzo Bernucci (T-Mobile) didn't start today. Therefore, the total riders who began going through Covadonga were 186. The first attack came in the first climb that was Alto de la Faya de los Lobos (Cat. 2 - kilometre 17.2). A very big group got clear of the bunch including Mauricio Ardila Cano (Rabobank), Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto), Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), Jurgen Van Goolen (Discovery Channel) and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas). Behind them, another group came up and caught the leaders to join a bunch with more than 30 riders on it.
At the first intermediate sprint in Alto de la Madera (kilometre 62), the leaders' advantage was more than six minutes. Mickaël Delage (Française Des Jeux) crossed below the billboard at first place followed by David Garcia (Karpin-Galicia) and Van Goolen. The peloton had a hard job trying to swallow such a massive breakaway.
From kilometre 100, the peloton started chasing the leaders at a faster pace. At kilometre 128, the gap was drastically reduced to three minutes and 52 seconds, cropping two minutes' advantage in almost 30 kilometres. At the second climb of the day in Alto de la Llama (Cat. 3 - kilometre 131) the gap was 3'45". Carlos Barredo (Quick.Step-Innergetic), Van Goolen, Rene Mandri (Ag2r Prévoyance) and Joan Horrach (Caisse d'Epargne) got the bonus points. The distance became shorter a shorter minute after minute.
In Cangas de Onis (22.5 kilometres to go), the leaders were in the up front more than two and a half minutes ahead of the rest. Meanwhile, there was a crash in the big group that included the Crédit Agricole's team leader Pietro Caucchioli. The Italian was able to continue but his GC chances will be in jeopardy.
The big show began at the bottom of Lagos de Covadonga. The leaders maintained a little gap but with the big names closing behind. The chase was guided by CSC Team. Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) followed by Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne) took the leadership from the escape group. The Russian had a better tempo, and then led the race solo with 11 kilometres to go.
Efimkin was part of the big breakaway of the day and found the right time to resist even with the favourites behind him. The big names climbed at top speed: Carlos Sastre, Denis Menchov, Cadel Evans and Leonardo Piepoli chased the Russian and easily picked up the original members of the long break. With eight kilometres to the finish line, the Caisse d'Epargne rider had a 2'12" over his chasers.
Lagos showed its toughness in La Huesera, which is the hardest part of the mountain. Efimkin resisted and got the most of the 'flat' sections of the climb while he led by 1'41" ahead of Menchov five kilometres before the finale. With three kilometres to the end, Vladimir didn't fade and had a 1'34" over the chasing group.
Finally, Efimkin was able to celebrate. He became the third Russian winning at the top of this mythical Vuelta mountain. Piepoli, Devolder and Menchov came second, third and fourth in Covadonga.
Stage 5 - September 5: Cangas de Onís - Reinosa, 157.4km
The stage from Cangas de Onís to Reinosa will not decide the Vuelta with its last peak coming at kilometre 136 but it will likely make one contender a 'non-contender.'
Three category 2 climbs dot the parcours before the final category 1 blast up the Puerto de la Palombera. Any rider wishing to have a chance today might want to channel the forces of German Dietrich Thurau who won an almost identical stage in 1976.