Paolo Bettini won the last stage before the first rest day on a finale that suited the punchy Italian perfectly. Sylvain Chavanel used two intermediate sprints and his entire Cofidis team to reverse his two-second deficit in the overall against Levi Leipheimer. Chavanel gained a total of 12 seconds and now leads Leipheimer by 10 seconds.
A hill just five kilometres from the finish splintered the peloton. While some fast men, notably Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto), were still around, they were voided of their strengths in the hilly run-in. Bettini on the other hand, who likes these kinds of finishes, showed he is in great form ahead of the Worlds in Varese, Italy.
Bettini really wanted that win. "It was not an easy finish line, but I've had this date marked on my calendar since the start in Granada. Winning in a beautiful city like Toledo is something special."
Bettini was full of praise about his entire team. "The director explained the final part of the race very well. The team did a great job sacrificing itself for me and keeping the group in single file during the last uphill tract." The final blow was up to Bettini to deliver. "I saw Gilbert take off in the last metres and I knew it was time to make my move."
Chavanel never would have thought before the race that he would be in such a position. "I didn't come here to think about leading the race. In fact, I came here hoping to win a stage. This is a surprise and also an honour to me." Chavanel showed he knew his history lessons, too. "The last French rider to lead the Vuelta was Laurent Jalabert. That sums up the honour it is for me to don the golden jersey."
With the high mountains now waiting, Chavanel is expected to lose the jersey quickly, even though he won't give it up without a fight. "In Andorra I will try to defend the jersey all the way to the end, but people need to understand that it is very difficult."
The Vuelta, which is less known for its crowds than the Tour de France, impressed Chavanel. "What I really liked here in Toledo was the amount of spectators. There were as many as in the Tour." Chavanel revealed that he has Spanish roots in his family tree, which is why he identifies very much with Spanish cycling.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) once again showed his versatility and sprinted to third place, receiving eight seconds in time bonuses. He continues to occupy third place in the overall, now only 26 seconds back. Valverde wasn't 100% satisfied with his day, though. "I tried to go for the stage win and the team prepared the sprint very well for me but Gilbert at first and then Bettini attacked just before the curve on the left. I lost some metres there. When I saw the finishing line I attacked also and came back but it was already too late."
Valverde did realise he gained some time on his rivals, notably on Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer. The Astana duo lost six seconds in the mad run-in to the finish. But Valverde played down the significance of the gap. "The bunch broke in different parts in the final and I gained some seconds to the favourites but those seconds will not be important in the next stages, even if it is of course always better to gain some time than lose some."
Considering the circumstances, Valverde could be happy that he even finished. A crash brought him down, but he was able to continue the race. "I was afraid just before the feeding zone because many riders crashed just in front of me. I had the reflex to brake to avoid them but the riders behind me could not. As a result, I broke my bike, I hurt my calf and my ankle hit the ground. I hope the crash will have no consequence."
Another rider coming down today was Quick Step's Tom Boonen. "I was just riding along when someone fell in front of me. A lot of us wound up in a heap on the ground. I've got some pretty good scrapes on my left leg and mostly on my back. This is what's causing me the most pain. Fortunately tomorrow is a day of rest. I hope to recover well".
The race started 20 minutes earlier to make sure the riders would make their 18:45 AVE high-speed train towards the Pyrenees. Three riders, Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems), Ivan Mayoz (Xacobeo Galicia) and Volodymyr Diudia (Team Milram), were in even a bigger hurry, as they took after only seven kilometres.
The trio built up a maximum lead of 3'30, but it was especially Cofidis that was not interested in letting the golden opportunity slip away. The break succeeded to stay ahead over the Paso por Majarliza. Well, not the entire break, as Diudia had to let go on the uphill. The mountain points were won by Mayoz, ahead of Ignatiev. Ignatiev's team-mate Walter Fernando Pedraza Morales received two points in third place and mountain leader Jesus Rosendo Prado (Andalucía - Cajasur) went all out to add one more point to his tally.
Timely before the first sprint of the day in Sonseca, Cofidis had brought it all back together. The French team hit the front to deliver Chavanel to the line and also occupy the second and third spots. That left Leipheimer, who frankly wasn't trying to keep the jersey, pointless. On the road, Chavanel was in the virtual leader's jersey by four seconds.
Mayoz sort of knew about his fate, but had no regrets. "I tried, but I knew for Cofidis it was a great opportunity to get the golden jersey and they needed to neutralise the breaks before the first two sprints." In the end he struggled in four minutes back. "I had a flat some 15 kilometres from the finish and I wasn't able to get back to the peloton."
He increased the lead to 10 seconds with a similar move in Cobisa, less than 20 kilometres from the line. In the end, there were a flurry of attacks on the small climb of the cerro de Los Palos, just five kilometres from the finish.
Yannick Talabardon (Crédit Agricole), David Herrero (Xacobeo Galicia), Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale) the list of names who tried to get away was long. But neither managed to get a gap and in the end it was the punchy riders to fight it out.
With Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) two sprinters made it into the final 14-man group, but both were too cooked from the effort to produce a decent sprint.
Stage 7 - September 6: Barbastro - Andorra, 233.2km
The Vuelta takes a rest day on Spetember 5, including a not-so-restful 500km transfer.
After one day of rest, the queen of stages awaits the riders. At 233.2 kilometres it is not only the longest, but with one category three, one category two, one category one and the hors-category finish in Andorra it is also one of the toughest stages in this year's race.
The category two Port de Monllobat will be tackled after 60 kilometres and the Collado de Faidella about halfway through. But it isn't until the bunch heads from Spain into the Andorra, after 176 kilometres, when it will start to get interesting. The road climbs to 910 metres at Sant Juliá de Loira. Then the road continues vertically towards the cat one Alto de la Rabassa. It tops out at 1860 metres.
From the summit it is 30 more kilometres to the finish. 14 of those are downhill. Then the final 17.1 kilometres towards the finish are uphill. The line is at the Alto de Naturlandia La Rabassa, at 2050 metres of altitude.