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Welcome back to stage two of the Vuelta. Today's stage takes us 203.7 km throughout northern Netherlands, and we expect a mass sprint finish.
What can we expect from this stage? Flat and wind. Lots of wind! And all that to be followed by a mass sprint finish.
A break group formed early today, in fact only three km into the stage. Francisco Jose Martinez Perez (Andalucia- Cajasur), Tom Leezer (Rabobank), Domink Roels (Milram), Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoliel) and David Garcia Da Pena (Xacobeo Galicia) took off, with Bbox's Damien Gaudin giving chase. Gaudin never was able to catch them, though, and eventually was caught again by the peloton. The five riders currently have a 5:10 lead.
The weather forecast could be a little friendlier. It is a tad warmer today, 18° Celsius, but they are still calling for a combination of rain showers and cloudy. It hasn't started raining yet, but we would say the chances are very, very good that it will get wet at some point.
Our course today starts again in Assen, then takes us on two loops out and back into the city, before heading south and east to Emmen. As we said earlier, the keywords for today are “flat” and “windy”.
Believe it or not, there is a ranked climb in the course today! It rises to a grand total of 30 metres or so – let's face it, it is hardly more than a bump in the road. But this allows the KOM jersey to be awarded today for the first time.
Today's climb is in honour of Relus Ter Beck, the Dutch politician who was responsible for bringing the Vuelta to the Netherlands, and who died last year.
The gap had climbed to 5:55, and that was enough for Saxo Bank, which moved into the lead work. The gap dropped to 5:47, just enough to let everyone know that the Danish team is keeping an eye on things.
This is the first time the Vuelta has visited the Netherlands, but not the first time a Grand Tour has started here. Today marks the sixth Grand Tour start in this land, with the most recent being the Giro d'Italia in 2002.
In fact, the Vuelta start today is only the first step. The Netherlands will also host the next two Grand Tours. The Giro d'Italia 2010 will start in Amsterdam, and the Tour de France 2010 in Rotterdam.
The gap is up to 6:04 as the break group nears the day's climb. There are no points to be awarded here, but the winner will be rewarded with a cash prize and the KOM jersey.
This is the Grand Tour debut for two of the Professional Continental teams here. Dutch team Vacansoliel and Spanish team Contentpolis-AMPR are happy to be starting in the Vuelta.
Robert Gesink is back after crashing out of the Tour de France. The 23-year-old Dutchman is captain of the Rabobank squad, and as a good climber, he is not shy about his chances here. It's not impossible for him to win the overall title here, he said, but “realistically” he doesn't think that will happen. “I will be satisfied if I can do better than my seventh place from last year,” Gesink added.
The first Vuelta King of the Mountains is Tom Leezer of Rabobank. He was the first over the first climb in this year's race.
The gap has jumped up to 6:35. The questionable weather isn't stopping the Dutch from coming out and cheering on the riders, there are lots of fans out today.
Saxo Bank is keeping the lead under seven minutes, that seems to be what they are comfortable with.
The Swine Flu has hit the peloton. Columbia's Craig Lewis has been officially diagnosed with it, and Astana's Johan Bruyneel has just come out of the hospital after a bout of high fever, which is rumoured also to have been the flu. Both were at the Tour of Ireland, along with about 12 other riders who are here at the Vuelta.
As we already noted, this is only the second time that the Vuelta has started outside of Spain. In the past, it has had stages in Portugal, Andorra and France, and is now looking to go even further afield, to another continent entirely. “In the future we think there may be stages in Morocco and Tunisia,” said Javier Guillen of race organising company Unipublic.
What do you think: will there be a mass sprint today, and if so, which one of the sprinters will take it? Or will the wind blow the field apart? You can talk about it at forum.cyclingnews.com/
Looking back at yesterday's prologue, “For our Team Milram, that was a very satisfactory start in the Vuelta,” said directeur sportif Ralf Grabsch. “Overall we had a very good prologue and with Linus Gerdemann we had our strongest rider at the front.”
David De La Fuenta (Fuji) and Jose Rubiera (Astana) have gone done, but both got back up on their bikes and are back in the peloton.
Alexander Vinokourov made his return to Grand Tour racing yesterday, bringing in a satisfactory seventh place in the prologue, 18 seconds behind winner Fabian Cancellara. “In the end my legs hurt so much, but why should I complain?,” the Astana rider said. “This is my first big race after two years and this is a promising result anyway."
We actually have a section of cobblestones today! It is 1.5 km long and comes at km 175. However, the organisers have already said that if the weather doesn't co-operate, they will cancel that and shunt the peloton off onto an alternative stretch.
David Millar's take on yesterday's prologue? “Well, that was a bit crap.” You can read his blog here: www.cyclingnews.com/blogs/david-millar/one-for-the-ages
We are just about halfway done for the day, and the gap has now crept up to its highest, exactly seven minutes.
Astana's Chris Horner noted that the weather played a role in his ride Saturday, saying, "I could have done better but there was so much wind when I did my lap. I had to take the outer corners because it was wet and then I got some heavy wind in my wheel. It was hard to stay on the bike without crashing sometimes! I made too many mistakes. I trained more than an hour on this circuit but today it looked like I'd forgotten all of it!"
The gap has dropped all of 10 seconds now, as Garmin has moved up to help Saxo Bank with the chase work. Meanwhile, the five escapees are having their lunch break.
Who are these five riders in the lead group? Let's see what we can find out about them. Francisco Jose Martinez Perez is a 26 year old Spaniard who turned pro in 2005 with this same Andalucia team. He doesn't seem to have any pro wins. Earlier this month he finished 60th overall in the Vuelta a Burgos.
Tom Leezer, 23, of Rabobank was Dutch junior champ in 2003. He turned pro the next year with Van Vliet-EBH-Advocaten, before joining the Rabo Continental team in 2005. He moved up to the ProTour team in 2008.
Dominik Roels is the youngest of the group, at 22 years old. The German youngster rides, appropriately enough, for the German ProTour team Milram. In 2005 he was German Junior champion and in 2006, he was German U-23 champion. He turned pro with team Akud Rose in 2007 before moving up to Milram last year.
Quick Step moved up to help Garmin and Saxo Bank with the chase, and their joint efforts are bearing fruit. The gap has come done now to 5:28.
Westra, who turns 27 on September 11, is a Dutch rider in his first year with Vacansoleil. This year he won the Tour de Picardie and the Arno Wallaard Memorial. On a sadder note, his father passed away last week, and the team started the Vuelta with mourning bands on their sleeves in his honour.
David Garcia Da Pena, 31. is an old pro here at the Vuelta. He won a stage in the race last year. In 2008 he also won the overall title in the Tour of Turkey. He won a stage there this year, as well as the overall title in the Vuelta a la Rioja.
The gap continues to tumble. From a high of 7:03 it has now dropped to 5:07.
The sun is shining! So far the dreaded rain hasn't shown up.
Wait, did we say sun? Our leaders have now unfortunately met the first raindrops. And the gap is now around four minutes.
Quick Step's Wouter Weylandt is leading the chase, and setting quite a pace.
Lars Boom of Rabobank made his Grand Tour debut yesterday. He had hoped for a top finish, but instead ended up in 44th place, 26 seconds down. He denied any extra pressure on him, calling it “a particularly nice experience. Your first prologue of a Grand Tour at home, that's something special. There was a very good atmosphere,”
Columbia's Andre Greipel is on the wrong end of the peloton. He is now at the very back -- he is more used to being at the very front, as in the first across the finish line.
It may not be raining now, but it has rained here. The peloton just passed through a large puddle.
Rabobank's sprinter (and three-time World Champion) Oscar Freire had perhaps hoped to slip into the leader's gold jersey in the next few days, but has had to give up hopes of that. He finished 30 seconds down in yesterday's prologue. “That is absolutely no goal for him here,” said team manager Erik Breukink. “Oscar wants to win at least one stage. If that will happen in coming days, I don't know. Oscar is better as the race progresses and the other sprinters get tired.”
Lots of fans out here today, cheering and clapping, even here in a wooded section.
There are two pairs of brothers in the Vuelta this year. Everyone is familiar with Saxo Bank's Schleck brothers, but there is a German pair here, too, although only one of them is on the bike. World time trial champ Bert Grabsch is riding for Columbia, while his elder brother Ralf is serving as DS for Team Milram.
Hm, the peloton has split now, but not in the usual way. What looked like a traffic island evolved into a divided road, so we now have half the riders here and the other half there. Hopefully they will get back together again!
Yes, all back together again, and riding right alongside one of the typical Dutch canals. Don't fall to the left side, guys.....
The gap is just over three minutes now, as Garmin and Quick Step work on the chase.
Garmin's Daniel Martin took a tumble early yesterday in the prologue, but is not injured and will be able to continue. He felt his wheel slip out on the third corner, and down he went, he told us: www.cyclingnews.com/news/martin-okay-after-crash-in-vuelta-a-espana-prologue
It looks like every inhabitant of this village is out along the road, cheering and clapping and encouraging the peloton.
The sun is shining again. We are hesitant to say that, since usually that means the rain will start any moment.....
The gap is now down to about 2:26 minutes.
Liquigas and Caisse d'Epargne are now moving up towards the front of the field.
Roels drops back to the Milram team car for a chat with DS Ralf Grabsch.
Andre Greipel, Columbia's sprinter, explained the weather yesterday: the early riders had it dry with strong winds. The riders in the middle had storm and rain, while the later riders found it dry and wind-free. He caught the wet and windy phase, so he ended up some 30 seconds behind Cancellara.
The gap continues to fall, as the peloton flies along and the quintet in the lead starts showing signs of tiredness.
Garmin and Quick Step continue to hold the peloton speed up.
The race jury has decided that the weather is cooperating and the cobblestones will stay in the race. It is only about a 1.5 km section, which comes some 28 km before the end.
The gap is down to under two minutes.
Manuel Ortega of Andalucia has gone down for the second time today. But he is once again back up and going.
About a third of the peloton took an alternative exit off of a roundabout, going on to the bike path instead of the road.
We don't know what happened to them --did they get back on the road or head into another direction?
Ortega is fighting his way back up towards the peloton, he is still not there.
A big crash. Lots of riders getting back up and going. Doesn't look like any big names involved.
Greipel is one of those held up by the crash.
Kessiakof drops back to the race doctor's car for a short visit.
The gap must be about a minute now.
The stage ends in Emmen, near the German border. The city is well-known for its Zoo, which, by the way, happily features a new-born zebra and leopard. Another attraction is the shopping centre, the largest in northern Netherlands.
Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil), Jesús Hernández (Astana), Fredrik Kessiakoff (Fuji-Servetto) and Vincent Jérôme (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) are among those who went down a few minutes ago.
The weather has once again showed its own mind by not at all doing what was predicted. We expected lots of wind and rain, so we have had mostly pretty sunshine and so good as no wind. Not that anyone is complaining!
50 seconds is all that is left now for the gap which was once over seven minutes.
Rabo has now moved to the front of the peloton, as the leaders take on the cobblestones.
Martinez is dropping back quicikly on the cobbles.
Many riders are dropping to the back of the peloton, these cobblestones are not really their thing.
Only 24 seconds now, it won't be long.
Martinez has lost contact with the others in the escape group, so they are now down to four.
Jose Ruiz Sanchez of Andalucia has flatted on the cobbles.
Martinez is now swallowed up by the peloton.
Westra tries to take off from his other companions, trying to save the stage for himself.
Westra fights on alone, hoping to win the stage in honour of his late father.
Here's some bad news for Saxo Bank. Fränk Schleck was one of those caught up by that crash a while ago, and he is apparently unable to get back to the peloton.
Meanwhile the peloton absorbs the trio of the escape group, with Westra having about a 56 second lead.
Westra holds on to a 50 second lead.
Garmin leads the charge -- lots of orange and blue near the front. Obviously they see this stage as the perfect opportunity for Tyler Farrar to continue his winning streak.
Westra is up out of his saddle and giving it his all.
Another roundabout divides the peloton, but fortunately this time they all get back onto the same roadway.
48 seconds now for Westra.
The peloton is strung out now as they zip along.
Fränk Schleck is back in the peloton, but at the other end from where he wants to be.
13 km to go, and Westra has been out there in the lead, either with a group or alone, since km 3......
The gap is now down to just over 20 seconds.
Looks like there has been another crash. Adam Hansen of Columbia and an Andalucia rider readjust their chains and get moving again.
Westra waves to the camera and waits to be absorbed by the peloton. A Garmin rider pats him on the back as he goes by.
Time to get reorganized now -- the escapees are caught and the sprint teams can start thinking about their plans.
Columbia is showing up at the front of the peloton now, hoping to set things up for Greipel. Looks like world TT champ Bert Grabsch leading the way.
Quick Step, Liquigas, Garmin, Columbia -- lots of teams at the front.
The field goes by the finish line, but not over it. It is on the other side of the divided road.
Garmin continues to lead the way, as they have so much of the day. Will they have enough left to set up the sprint for Farrar?
The peloton is still bunched pretty tightly. Now Garmin picks up the speed again and strings things out a bit.
Rabo is fairly near the front, protecting Gesink and playing with the idea of doing something for Freire.
Milram moves to the front, riding for Gerald Ciolek.
No one team has really taken over control of the peloton here to set up a sprint. Not yet....
Now Columbia moves to the front, practically a team time trial.
Kirchen falls out of the lead, as Columbia continues to lead, followed by Milram. Now Adam Hansen takes over the lead work.
Quick Step formed their own train and has moved ahead of Columbia. The pace is so high that the peloton has split.
David Millar leads the way, followed by Columbia's Marcel Sieberg.
Big man Sieberg leads the way for Greipel,
The sprint goes: a photo finish! Gerald Ciolek or Daniele Bennati?
Looks like Ciolek has taken it by a few centimetres. And Roger Hammond of Cervelo looks to have taken third. But we don't have it official yet.
And it is confirmed for Gerald Ciolek, a great win for him and his Milram team!
Not Bennati after all, but Fabio Sabatini. Andre Greipel had gotten boxed in during the sprint and could only get fourth place.
Here's the day's results:
1.Gerald Ciolek (Milram)
2.Fabio Sabatini (Liquigas)
3.Roger Hammond (Cervelo)
4.Andre Greipel (Columbia)
5.Tyler Farrar (Garmin)
And Fabian Cancellara holds on to the leader's gold jersey.
Cancellara stays in first, but Ciolek moves up to second, one second ahead of Tom Boonen.
That's it for today! Thanks for being here. Join us again tomorrow afternoon as we head south but stay in the Netherlands.