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Scooping his fourth-ever Vuelta stage win, race leader Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) fortified his grip...
Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) wins
Scooping his fourth-ever Vuelta stage win, race leader Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) fortified his grip on the maillot oro when he won a diminished bunch sprint in Puertollano. The Italian beat yesterday's victor Tom Boonen (Quick Step), with Koldo Fernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danilo Napolitano (Lampre) and Erik Zabel (Team Milram) taking places three through to five in the gallop.
"It was a sprint that was suited to me," said Bennati, "straight and without confusion. I had some great help from my team-mates Pozzato, (Manuel) Quinziato, (Claudio) Corioni and (Alessandro) Vanotti. Then I was left on [Wouter] Weylandt's wheel and at 180 meters [to go], it was party decided.
"In Liquigas it is a case of 'all for one, one for all'," he continued. "Everyone respects their roles for the good of the team: this is our strength. Many, for example, doubted the coexistence between me and Pozzato. Instead, we demonstrated that by working together and helping each other, we can win a lot."
Bennati took his sixth season victory today, and the 35th of his career. He is more firmly in the race lead and also has the blue points jersey. However he thinks that things may change tomorrow. "I am glad to still be in front of everyone," he said, "but tomorrow we will have the Ciudad Real time trial and holding on will be tough. I will do my utmost to honour the race lead, but I am certainly not here to win the overall My goal is to focus on stage victories, and so I have no intention of making do with just today's win."
His victory coupled with his second place in an earlier intermediate sprint saw him finish the day 22 seconds ahead of Boonen, with former leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) dropping to third, 48 seconds back.
The peloton was split at the finish due to a crash just outside the final three kilometres, and this accounted for gaps in the bunch. As a result, only a few riders disputed the final sprint. Most of the big gallopers were there, yet Bennati had little problem in beating Boonen, Fernández, Napolitano and three others. Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole) brought home the next little group for ninth, some three seconds later.
Former Giro d'Italia winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre) was delayed in an earlier fall and lost two minutes and 16 seconds. Andreas Klöden (Astana) was even more disadvantaged, finishing over four minutes back.
The 170.3 kilometre stage began with the category three climb of the Alto de los Villares, the summit coming just 6.8 kilometres after the start, and there mountains leader Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia Cajasur) took the prime ahead of team-mate Francisco Jose Martinez, Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia) and Walter Fernando Pedraza (Tinkoff Credit Systems).
Another Andalucia Cajasur rider, Jose Antonio Lopez, attacked very soon afterwards and quickly pulled clear. He took the second mountains prime of Puerto de la Chimorra (km 46.8) well ahead of Walter Fernando Pedraza (Tinkov Credit Systems), Jesus Rosendo Prado and Manuel Ortega Ocana (both Andalucia Cajasur), and reached his maximum gap of eight minutes six seconds sixteen kilometres later.
He was also first at the day's intermediate sprint in Pozoblanco (71.4km) where, over seven minutes later, Bennati fortified his race lead when he edged out Valverde for second place. The Liquigas, Lampre and Quick Step-led peloton was intent on setting things up for a bunch sprint and started making inroads into Lopez's lead. With 40 kilometres remaining he was 3'36 ahead and by the time he took the final intermediate prime in Almodovar del Campo, 11.1 kilometres from the finish, he was just 39 seconds ahead of Marco Marzano (Lampre) and race favourite Alberto Contador (Astana).
A crash with approximately eight kilometres to go took down several riders, amongst them Cunego and Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank). This did little to disrupt the pace of the peloton and Lopez was finally reeled in a kilometre and a half later. The next crash led to the fragmented final gallop plus the small time differences, but didnt affect the main sprinters.
The Vuelta a España continues tomorrow with a 42.5 kilometre mainly flat time trial, starting and finishing in Cuidad Real. The general classification will be reshuffled again there, and the pre-race favourites should start to make their form known.
Some will be determined to make up the time they lost today. Igor Anton only conceded seven seconds to Bennati, while Carlos Sastre (CSC - Saxo Bank), Valverde, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer (both Astana) lost 19 seconds. Rabobank's Robert Gesink was a bit further back, 42 seconds down, with Cunego 2'16 in arrears and Andreas Klöden a considerable 4'12 behind.
Cunego didn't sound too disappointed afterwards, probably because he said he is chasing stage wins rather than a high GC place. "I'm happy I could avoid the crash," he said. "I could brake and I didn't fall, but I had to stop and then to chase the bunch. When I was very close to the back of the group, another crash blocked the street and so I could not rejoin the bunch. It's always a pity to lose time, but it's not a drama since my target is to try to do well in some stages."
Sastre was more involved in a crash, but didn't suffer any serious injury. "I was brushing up against a wire fence, which ripped my shorts and gave me some superficial scratches," he said. "But it wasn't anything serious. I was able to finish without losing time with respect to my rivals, which was the most important thing for me looking ahead to tomorrow's stage."
He and the other CSC riders want to ride strongly in the race against the clock. "We're thinking about the time trial tomorrow, which for many of us is the first real test of this race. Today we wanted to conserve our energy and not expend too much energy looking ahead to that stage."
One who doesn't expect to excel there is Alberto Contador. "I am a climber, not a time trialist," said the Astana leader. "You only have to compare the number of victories I have had in climbs, compared to time trials. Besides, this is not a particularly good time trial for me.
"I'm enough of a non-conformist to try anyway, and my main goal would be to gain an advantage over my rivals in the mountains. I expect both Valverde and Sastre to post good times, as each of them are very strong."