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Vuelta a España enjoys its second rest day and a tight classification battle
Evans, Danielson, Valverde all within reach of the Vuelta win
Just 11 stages into the 2009 Vuelta a España and one can be forgiven for thinking there's no need to move the Spanish Grand Tour's date to enhance the event. The race passes its halfway mark with six top Grand Tour riders sitting within 63 seconds of one another - slightly more than a minute after 1755.2 competitive kilometres. Over that distance sixth placed Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) has averaged a time less than a three-thousands of a second per kilometre slower than Spanish compatriot Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), who leads the race.
If that's the outcome of racing that needs improving, then one can only question how incredible the organiser's vision for the race must be. Of course, the more immediate question is what scintillating action will unfold over the coming 10 stages.
A unique layout to this year's event, which started outside of Spain for the first time in 12 years, means it is game on for the general classification contenders following today's rest day. Those six that top the general classification need to extract all they can out of the early rest day, as there's now 1516 kilometres of racing separating them and Grand Tour glory on Madrid's streets, where they will arrive on September 20.
If looking back on the first 11 stages is any indication, then cycling fans are in for a real treat as the riders cycle deeper into the Spanish battle ground. Already we've seen some amazing accomplishments, like Simon Gerrans joining the club of now seven active riders to have won stages in all three Grand Tours, Gregory Henderson breaking a 29-year drought for a Kiwi stage win or most recently Tyler Farrar becoming the seventh US rider to win a Vuelta stage. Even Damiano Cunego (Lampre) came out of hiding to claim a Grand Tour stage win - his first in, well, who can remember how long (Stage 18, 2004 Giro d'Italia)?
In between that the Swiss, or more accurately Fabian Cancellara, has dominated the two time trials while the German riders - André Greipel (Columbia-HTC) and Gerald Ciolek (Milram) - have been formidable, although not unbeatable, opponents in the sprint finishes. One impressive accomplishment came from Slovenian Borut Bozic, who become his nation's first Vuelta stage winner in a bunch sprint. While the bunch Bozic won from was only 16-strong, it included sprint prince Tom Boonen, stage 11 winner Farrar and current sprint classification leader Greipel. If you've going to prove yourself, then being surrounded by some of the world's best isn't a bad way to go about it.
And simmering away in the background all this time was the foundations of what's shaping up to be a battle royal for overall honours. That blanket got its first solid shake on stage eight, when Australia's Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) commended his team on riding well (something that's about as rare as a Cunego stage win) and took the golden jersey for a day.
The 206 kilometre stage saw our top six - Valverde, Evans, Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream), Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Sánchez - cement their positions as contenders for this year's title. The following two stages - to Xorret del Catí and Murcia respectively - would move Valverde into the gold jersey and add 17 seconds to the spread between them.
Battles for the mountains classification hasn't been as close, with David Moncoutié (Cofidis) working up a 14 point buffer over David De La Fuente (Fuji-Servetto) while Greipel's commanding grip on the sprint classification has been eroded following Farrar's stage win, putting just seven points between the pair. In addition to its overall lead Caisse d'Epargne currently leads the teams classification while Astana is showing its consistency sitting in second place.
Stage 1: Assen (ITT) 4.5km - This Swiss cannot miss
While some of the sprinters put in a good showing, thanks to the short length of the opening stage, Cancellara never looked in doubt of taking the Vuelta's first stage win and leader's jersey of 2009. The Swiss rider finished nine seconds ahead of Boonen with Farrar just three seconds slower.
The race started in the Netherlands, with a lap around Assen's famed race track. It was the first time the Vuelta had started outside of Spanish borders in more than a decade.
Stage 2: Assen - Emmen 202km - Ciolek keeps on moo-ving
Ciolek proved he's a man that knows how to make an entrance. In his first participation at the Vuelta, on the first stage he could possibly win, he did exactly that. Ciolek crossed the line ahead of Fabio Sabatini (Liquigas), who was supposed to be working for Daniele Bennati, and Roger Hammond (Cervélo Test Team), with the more prominent sprinters like Greipel, Farrar and Boonen left to fill out the top 10 places.
Stage 3: Zutphen - Venlo 189.7km - Choice, ey bro?
A young Paul Jesson won the 178 kilometre stage 10 at the 1980 Vuelta, becoming the first New Zealander to take a Vuelta stage victory. Some 29 years later the now 54-year-old Jesson probably wasn't expecting one of his countrymen to match his feat, yet that's exactly what Greg Henderson did.
Like Ciolek a day earlier, this is Henderson's first Vuelta start and he opened it with style. The Kiwi that could crossed the line with his hands high in the air ahead of Bozic and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who has won a sprint or two in his time. Sitting in fourth place, also with his hands held high, was team-mate Greipel who would get his chance in the coming days.
Stage 4: Venlo - Lieja 224km - Next stop, Liège
The heavens opened on Greipel, but that wasn't going to dampen his spirit, as the Columbia-HTC train charged in to town. In fact, the American-owned train was charging so hard four of its riders filled the top seven places as it went head-to-head with Quick Step and won.
Quick Step's Wouter Weylandt settled for second place and a warm shower after the crash-marred finish. Race leader Cancellara went down on the run to the finish, along with half the peloton, but he maintained his advantage on general classification due to the timing of the accident.
Stage 5: Tarragona - Vinaros 174km - Toot, toot...here we go again
After winning the previous day's stage in challenging conditions, and half the peloton on the deck, Greipel showed his winning ways against a full complement of sprinters. The German rider picked up the race lead, thanks to bonus seconds, as he escaped the grasp of Boonen, Bennati and Farrar to finish one second clear of the trio.
Stage 6: Xativa 177km - Tell me who are you, who are you?
Anyone who didn't pay attention to the Slovenian rider who took second on stage three paid for their mistakes on stage six, as Bozic slipped in for the win. Bozic held off the usual suspects as he demonstrated why Vacansoleil is worthy of its wild card status at the race.
Farrar and Bennati would fill the podium places but the race leader's jersey would stay on Greipel's shoulders for another day.
Stage 7: Valencia (ITT) 30km - Cancellara proves there's only one formula
Cancellara waltzed back in to the maillot oro with another individual time trial stage victory in Valencia. The Swiss rider used his high octane power to zoom to victory on the Formula One track in Valencia, beating second-placed rider David Millar (Garmin Slipstream) by a cool 32 seconds and opening up a further four on world TT champ Bert Grabsch (Columbia HTC).
Boonen moved in to second overall with David Herrero (Xacobeo Galicia) in third, both within a minute of Cancellara.
Stage 8: Alzira - Alto de Aitana 206km - I'm coming out...
The eighth stage certainly got the general classification party started, but it was Cunego who had every right to raise a glass after his first Grand Tour stage win in five years. The Italian's dry streak came to a end as he took a 33 second victory over Moncoutié, with Gesink a further three seconds behind.
Evans moved upwards and in to the leader's jersey as he crossed the line with Valverde and Sanchez. The Australia's superior efforts in the earlier time trials helped move him in to a narrow overall lead, signalling a return to form he lacked at the Tour de France.
Stage 9: Alcoy - Xorret de Cati 186km - Spanish revolt
It took a while but the Spanish riders swung the celebrations in their favour on stage nine. Not only did Gustavo César Veloso show why Xacobeo Galicia keeps getting invited back to the Vuelta, by winning the stage, but his compatriot Valverde took the leader's jersey off Evans shoulders by seven seconds with his third place.
Gesink and Evans disagreed over a racing incident while Valverde was taking the race lead up the road, but despite reports of hot-tempers after the stage Evans admitted fault later on and said an apology would follow.
Stage 10: Alicante - Murcia 162km - Triple treat
A four rider break was successful as the stage count entered double digits. It was looking like Astana's sun was rising higher with Alexander Vinokourov amongst the leading four, but it was Australia's Gerrans that made up for missed Tour de France opportunities by joining Pablo Lastras, Denis Menchov, Alessandro Petacchi, Gilberto Simoni, David Zabriskie and Juan Gárate as active riders to have won stages in all three Grand Tours.
The stage failed to make an impression on the general classification leaders however. The main contenders all finished 3:42 minutes behind Gerrans' group.
Stage 11: Murcia - Caravaca de la Cruz 200km - Farrar gasses past Liquigas
Liquigas dominated the closing kilometres, but it was Farrar that walked away with the glory. In fact, Liquigas' main man got so swamped over the closing metres that he only managed to stay inside the top 15 with his 13th place.
Philippe Gilbert (Silence Lotto) gave Farrar a run for his money by taking second, while Vacansoleil took another podium place, this time with Marco Marcato.
General classification after stage 11
1 Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)
2 Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) 0:07
3 Robert Gesink (Rabobank) 0:36
4 Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream) 0:51
5 Ivan Basso (Liquigas) 0:53
6 Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 1:03
7 Damiano Cunego (Lampre-NGC) 2:13
8 Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) 2:24
9 Haimar Zubeldia (Astana) 3:10
10 Tadej Valjavec (AG2R La Mondiale) 3:13