Stage win and overall to Italian Classics man
Better known for his status in the Spring Classics, Alessandro Ballan claimed victory and the overall race lead the first high-mountain stage of the Vuelta a España – 223.2 kilometres from Barbastro to Andorra. The 28 year-old Italian formed part of the day's escape group 18 kilometres into the day that was marked with four categorised climbs, including the mountain top arrival on La Rabassa.
"I started the day thinking to go tranquilo and to prepare for the Worlds. But then, I was in the break. With 30 kilometres to go I still didn't know if I could win. I am satisfied with the victory," said Ballan.
Ballan – 2'30" down at the start of the day – ensured the day's winnings with a solo bid at kilometre 209. He left behind Marc De Maar (Rabobank), part of an early escape that also included Gianni Meersman (Française des Jeux), Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne).
The overall favourites were hot on Ballan's heels. Giro d'Italia winner Alberto Contador of Team Astana was the first to play his cards in the final two kilometres. Ezequiel Mosquera of Team Xacobeo Galicia closed down his fellow Spaniard for second on the stage, but Contador gained a precious five seconds on competitors like Spain's Carlos Sastre of Team CSC-Saxo Bank.
Ballan now controls the overall lead by one minute over America's Levi Leipheimer of Team Astana and Frenchman and 1'21" former race leader, Sylvain Chavanel of Team Cofidis.
"I was a bit afraid that the favourites would go all out at the last climb, but it wasn't too hard and didn't require that much strength," continued Ballan, whose last race win was in the Tour de Pologne. "I am dedicating this victory to my daughter, who was born in August, and to my family."
Mosquera was proud of his day, which included hard racing conditions. "It was tough today with the rain. I didn't have a great start to the Vuelta. The time trial was bad [29th at 2'09" down - ed.]. I didn't think it was going to be my Vuelta, but my form has changed. Now I am feeling good," he said.
The day started unlike the others with a cold air down to 15°C from the usually 30°C. Riders, after the first rest day, rolled out at an early start of 11:28 to face the four categorised climbs cumulating with the second accent of the La Rabassa and intermittent rain.
The escape of the day moved free near kilometre 18. It contained Ballan, Netherlands' De Maar, Spain's Zandio and Landaluze, Belgium's Meersman and France's David Moncoutié (Cofidis). Chavanel's team-mate Moncoutié did not stay and play, but the remaining five carried on.
The move had a solid six-plus minutes in hand by kilometre 38 6'25". The gap continued to grow and Ballan 2'30" down at the start of the day was in the virtual maillot oro for most of the day. At the base of the first climb, Puerto de Montllobar, the gap was 8'50". It grew to 10'35" over the Cofidis-led peloton by the start of the third category Collado de Faidella.
The first pass of the Alto de la Rabassa sorted out the escape. The leaders dropped Xabier Zandio at kilometre 181, 12.4 kilometres to the top. Compatriot Landaluze was next, but he maintained contact and passed the summit kilometre 193.4 only 18 back of the front trio. A chase trio Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole), Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Carlos Castaño (Xacobeo Galicia) formed in pursuit of the leaders. It gained some ground on the peloton, but was reeled back by Rabassa's summit. The peloton, near 45 riders and led by Sergio Paulinho (Astana), passed 6'27" behind the leaders.
World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and David Garcia (Xacobeo Galicia) broke free on the decent. They formed a new trio with Zandio for the start of the day's final climb. They held one minute on the peloton around three kilometres into the climb kilometre 209.
Ballan takes control
After a brief surge ahead by Landaluze, Ballan took control of the stage. He held 1'28" on De Maar 3'40" on Meersman at kilometre 213 just over ten kilometres to race. The peloton was at 5'35" back and the new Spanish duo Mauricio Ardila Cano (Rabobank) and David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) were in the middle.
The heat was on in the group of classification favourites despite the chilly mountain temperatures. In the following seven kilometres, the chase halved the gap and Ballan's chances for the overall lead.
Contador moved to distance his rivals and only Mosquera was there to mark from the chasing group of six. Contador finished third and Joaquím Rodríguez (Caisse d'Epargne) came in five seconds back with Leipheimer, Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Sastre. Race favourite and winner of stage two, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), lost 50 seconds to the favourites.
Stage 8 - September 7: Andorra - Pla de Beret, 151km
The peloton won't enjoy the downhill out of Andorra for long during stage eight. After only 23 kilometres the grind of the day starts, with the category one Cantó the first obstacle of the day along the 151-kilometre long route. It is quickly followed by the Alto de Enviny.
Then the tough Puerto de La Bonaigua stands in the way of the riders. It is a stair-step like climb that forces the cyclists to constantly change their rhythm. The summit is at 2070 metres, the highest point of the 2008 Vuelta a España.
The final will be the hors-category finish climb to the Pla de Beret. It is only 1880 metres high and not quite as steep, but it is the finishing climb after all and deserves its higher ranking.
The Pla de Beret was used as a stage finish three times so far. It was scheduled one more time, but in 209.51 the stage was cancelled due to snow in the Puerto de la Bonaigua. With the move from the spring to late summer, this should not happen this time.