Bennati and Bettini come up short to the three-time World Champ
Oscar 'The Cat' Freire pounced on his rivals out of the final right-hand corner of the 157.4-kilometre stage to Reinosa. The three-time World Champion picked up his second stage win in this year's Vuelta a España over Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital, stage one winner) and World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step - Innergetic, stage three winner).
"I did more than I could," confirmed Freire after the finish. "Everything went perfectly well for me. I think I got the right position in the sprint; there were some riders who got ahead of me in the last turn, but in the end I was fine. I knew there were few metres to sprint and during the whole stage I suffered to reach those last metres in good condition."
It was a relatively quiet day for the general classification men. Only the 1,260 metre-high Puerto de la Palombera, at 21 kilometres to go, provided any real difficulties. Caisse d'Epargne made sure Vladimir Efimkin, holder of the overall leader's maillot oro, covered the climb safely and finished with the main pack to retain the lead.
Karsten Kroon (Team CSC) made a bold attempt at freedom when he attacked with Ángel Gómez Gómez (Saunier Duval-Prodir) from a 10-man move that was originally formed at 60 kilometres out. After the Collada de Carmona, only Kroon and 'Litu' remained. 20 kilometres later, on the category one Palombera Spaniard 'Litu' sat up while the 31 year-old Dutchman persisted. He topped the climb with only 1'25" back on the Rabobank- and Caisse d'Epargne-led peloton.
Kroon hammered down the backside at speeds around 70 kilometres per hour, but once the roads levelled staring in Fontibres he had a harder time at maintaining his gap. The former Rabobank rider, winner of a stage in the 2002 Tour, was only holding on to 34 seconds at the entrance of Reinosa.
The presence of Bettini, Bennati and Erik Zabel meant that members from their Quick.Step, Lampre and Milram teams were now adding coals to the raging chase fire. Kroon no longer stood a chance. His nine-second gap at five kilometres was whipped down to zero seconds at three kilometres to go.
Only Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux) provided a mix to the formalities. The Belgian darted off the front through the right-hander at 350 metres to go. He faded to the left as Freire, Bennati and Bettini lined up right to left across the road. The Spaniard got the win with Arezzo's Bennati topping Bettini and adding substance to his bid for a spot on the Italian team in the World Championships.
Freire had been winless since the spring but jumped back with stage two in Santiago de Compostela and today's stage. "Everyone wants to win," he said of his domination in the Vuelta. "They [the rivals - ed.] don't like me in sporting terms, but I think we all get along well. I think today was a great day for me. Achieving the win here [in his home region] is doubly important.
"Everyone thought that a breakaway would succeed today, but we have ridden at such a fast tempo that it was impossible to escape. In the end, I said [to my team] I was fine, my team-mates started going faster, and it was a very tough finale because Palombera climb was very long for me.
"I reached the finish with less energy than Bettini, but the advantage is that I am a bit faster than him and that I was at home."
The confusing move of the day was made by José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir). The Spaniard darted off the front of the peloton on the way up the Palombera to put himself firmly in no-man's land, behind Kroon and in front of the gruppo. He topped the climb 45" back on Kroon and 40" up on his GC rivals. With 21 kilometres to the finish, Marchante had no chance of staying clear due to his stature as a GC favourite.
How it unfolded
186 riders took the start in Cangas de Onis on their way to Reinosa, a little town in the province of Cantabria which sits near a dam called Embalse del Ebro. There were many attacks very early on the day but none of them were successful. It seemed the peloton wouldn't allow any early break as the one that happened yesterday in the first mountainous stage. All the riders reached the start of the first climb (El Collado de la Hoz) of the day together. Meanwhile, Giovanni Bernaudeau (Bouygues Telecom) quit the race at kilometre 30. The French had a hard time yesterday when going up in Lagos de Covadonga.
Ángel Gómez Gómez (Saunier Duval-Prodir) wanted to get everyone's attention and got a gap with the peloton at kilometre 77. Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick.Step-Innergetic), José Luis Arrieta (Ag2r Prévoyance), Daniel Moreno (Relax-GAM) and Bert Grabsch (T-Mobile) joined Gómez in the break when going down in El Collado de la Hoz. There was a lot of jostling at that part of the race with a peloton that didn't want to allow breakaways.
At kilometre 100, only two riders got rid of the big group: Ángel Gómez Gómez and Karsten Kroon (CSC). The Dutchman didn't want company and led solo kilometres ahead. However, the Spaniard caught the CSC rider at kilometre 112. Both decided to cooperate in order to maintain the advantage with the rest. Six kilometres later, the duo led by 3'30" over the peloton.
When going up in Puerto de la Palombera there were many moves. Kroon insisted in going alone, so he attacked his break team and then moved clear. Behind him, the Rabobank riders tried to crop the distance in order to help sprinter Oscar Freire. It turned on the engines.
Later on, José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) escaped from the bunch. At the summit of Palombera (kilometre 136.2), Kroon led the race followed by Gomez Marchante.
Descending this last climb, the peloton worked together, caught Gomez Marchante and cropped the distance to Kroon. By eight kilometres to the line, the CSC rider had a scarce 35-second advantage. Three kilometres later, the Dutchman had the bunch on his back: just nine seconds behind. A bunch sprint was taking shape.
The speed was fast on a flat finale, very suitable for the sprinters specialists in Reinosa. Milram took command as usual but neither Erik Zabel nor Alessandro Petacchi could get the most of their team work. In the last 100 metres, it was a fight between Freire, Bennati and Bettini. The Spaniard cranked out the speed in the final 50 metres to 'easily' defeat both Italians. This was the first Freire win in his home province of Cantabria.
Freire was joined on the podium by Cantabria's governor and son, Marcos, dressed in Rabobank's kit.
Stage 6 - September 6: Reinosa - Logroño, 184.3km
Friday will be a day for the GC favourites to take it easy after two seriously testing days and focus their mental energies on the weekend time trail to come while the sprinters will be geeing to jam down the roads from Reinosa to Logroño. Only a feed-zone and small, un-classified climbs will face the riders on the 184.3-kilometre run where at the end a sprinter should reign.