Boonen grabs stage

Tom Boonen has shown he is back on top sprinting form after his cocaine positive earlier this...

Bennati takes over maillot oro

Tom Boonen has shown he is back on top sprinting form after his cocaine positive earlier this summer, winning stage three of the Vuelta a España into Córdoba. He beat Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Erik Zabel (Team Milram) to the line, with Koldo Fernandez De Larrea (Euskaltel – Euskadi) and Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole) netting fourth and fifth in the mass bunch gallop.

Bennati had picked up second in two bonus sprints and his runner-up placing on the stage lifted him clear of today's leader Alejandro Valverde in the general classification. He ended the day seven seconds ahead of the Spaniard and ten up on Boonen. His team-mate Filippo Pozzato and Egoi Martinez De Esteban are next in line in the overall standings.

Boonen was glad to be back on top of a Grand Tour podium. "Today was incredibly hot," he stated. "It was by no means an easy stage. I already partly knew the route, which has been the scene of some beautiful stages in the Ruta del Sol and la Vuelta. At the top of the climb I hit the downhill with the first group and from then I thought only about preparing the final sprint with the help of my team mates.

"I chose Bennati's wheel…Daniele is in great shape and I knew he would be the man to beat. Everything went perfectly. When Bennati started the sprint I stayed covered as much as possible, choosing the right moment to make my move."

Boonen took his fourteen win of the season and said that unlike other years, he has plenty of reserves due to missing the Tour. "As I've said already this year I'm facing the Vuelta in good condition. Usually this race represented the beginning of the end of the season for me. I always ended the Tour de France tired because of the battle for the green jersey. This year instead I'm fresh and the team is racing without much stress. This is another strong point."

He is now third in the general classification behind Bennati. The latter repeated his achievement of last year's Vuelta in grabbing the maillot oro, but was not completely happy.

"'I'm satisfied with having the golden jersey, but truthfully I would have preferred the stage win," Bennati said afterwards. "The golden jersey is a small compensation, but I already wore it last year and what I want from now on is to win stages."

The 27 year-old Bennati believes he was equal in strength to the stage winner, but was disadvantaged due to hitting the front too soon. "It's not that Tom (Boonen) was any stronger than I was today. What happened is there was a strong wind in our faces and since my team had made such a great effort, I had to start my final sprint from too far away. Tom got right behind me and passed me."

According to the Italian, the Vuelta is his big goal for now, not the worlds. "I'm not thinking of the Italian team for the World Championship. I already spoke a good deal about that last year and what I want to focus my efforts on is winning stages in the Vuelta."

The day was marked by a long solo move by Andalucia Cajasur rider Manuel Ortega Ocana, who was quarter of an hour ahead at one point and was only caught on the descent of the final climb. "I am happy because I had a chance until 15 kilometres to go," he said. "I was only caught after the top of the climb. Now I hope that I recover by tomorrow, otherwise it will be an ordeal."

Apart from the publicity gained through his escape, the team also has the boost of holding on to the lead of the king of the mountains. Jesús Rosendo was third on the Alto de San Jerónimo and ended the day six points ahead of team-mate Ortega.

Young Irish rider Nicolas Roche was fifth in the gallop to the line, and was encouraged by how things went. "My condition is great, I had great momentum and a super job from Gabriel Rasch in the final two kilometres. He worked really well for me, keeping me out of the wind and putting me on Boonen's wheel with one kilometre to go. It is awesome to be finally able to compete at this level and I’m trying to make the most of it. Going for a stage win at some point in the race is more possible than ever."

How it unfolded

The sunny stage took the riders 168.6 kilometres from Jaén to Córdoba. Andalucia Cajasur rider Manuel Ortega Ocana attacked almost immediately after the start in his hometown, making the most of early disinterest on the part of the peloton to pull over fifteen minutes clear.

Ortega was over ten minutes ahead when he took the intermediate sprint in Espejo, 88.2 kilometres after the start. Bennati and his team-mate Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) were second and third there, with the bunch’s lethargy reflected in the fact that it didn’t try to stay on the wheels of the riders winding things up before the sprint. This was also seen at the second sprint of the day in Córdoba, 45.5 kilometres from the end, where Ortega crossed the line 7'47" ahead of Bennati and another Liquigas rider, Claudio Corioni.

Alejandro Valverde didn't attempt to contest either intermediate sprint, thus showing that he was not intent on defending his race lead.

Ortega had a lead of six minutes 49 seconds when he hit the start of the day's lone categorised climb, the third cat Puerto de San Jerónimo, but a big solo attack by Paolo Bettini saw the Italian close to within one minute 45 seconds by the summit.

The world champion then caught and dropped him soon afterwards, with Ortega also being passed by Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis). Both were caught by the peloton and then Bettini was himself recaptured with fifteen kilometres remaining.

Liquigas was doing most of the riding in order to set things up for Bennati. Chavanel wanted something other than a bunch gallop and went again three kilometres from the line. He was hauled back a kilometre later and, in the ensuing sprint, Boonen overpowered Bennati as well as the other fastmen in the race.

Valverde finished 29th in the gallop for the line, thus enabling Bennati to take over the maillot oro. The race continues tomorrow with a 170.3 kilometre race from Córdoba to Puertollano.

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