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Hola, y bienvenidos a Espana! The 2009 Vuelta has returned on home turf and today's stage takes the riders from Tarragona to Vinaros - southwards, at 36° Celsius. From the chilly dampness of the Netherlands and Belgium into the Iberian oven; that's what the bunch has to face today... plus this year's first Cat 2 climb, the Coll de Fatxas, as well as some more bumps on the road such as the Alto de la Ermita, some eight clicks before the finish line.
The breakaway of the day was created during the very first kilometre raced, as the bunch was leaving Tarragona this morning. Julian Sanchez Pimienta (Contentpolis-Ampo) jumped ahead from the gun, and was quickly joined by another five riders: Aitor Hernandez Gutierrez (Euskaltel), José Antonio Lopez Gil (Andalucía), Julien El Fares (Cofidis), Matthé Pronk (Vacansoleil) and Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia).
The break was able to extend its advantage to a maximum of 4.30 minutes before they reached the first climb, the Fatxas, which they are now taking on.
195 riders have taken the start today, while Chris Horner (Astana) and Robert Kiserlovski (Fuji) will be missed during the remainder of the race, both victims of the crash in Liège two days ago. Horner fractured his wrist in the pile-up, and Kiserlovski broke his collarbone. Charly Wegelius (Silence-Lotto) abandoned the race prior to stage four.
Many riders suffered injuries in Liège, including Ezekiel Mosquera (Xacobeo), who decided to continue today despite a sprained and swollen ankle.
Aitor Hernández was the first to cross the Fatxas climb, followed by Martinez and Sanchez Pimienta. It looks like this will give Euskaltel rider the lead in the mountains classification, currently held by Lars Boom (Rabobank).
The Garmin team is currently making the pace at the front of the pack, helped by Liquigas and Columbia. Tyler Farrar is still on the hunt for a stage win, and a possible golden jersey... David Millar wrote in his Cyclingnews blog that hadn't it been for that last crash in Liège, his teammate was sure to have won the stage.
The gap is down to 4.30 minutes again after it went up to six minutes due to the Coll de Fatxas.
The heat is still on in Spain, as the thermometer now shows 37° Celsius - a human body's baseline temperature. Many litres of water and rehydration liquids will be swallowed by the riders today. After the cold and rainy weather in Belgium, the heat is likely to cause some stomach problems, too.
The gap has dropped under the four-minute-mark, at 3.36 minutes, while the riders approach the first intermediate sprint of the day in Benifallet.
Today's stage seems set for another bunch sprint finish - let's hope without crashes for once. But before the riders can take on the final kilometres, there will still be the Alto de la Ermita to tackle, a short climb of a little over 1.5 km without any particularly steep parts.
Still, the tricky thing about this climb is that its road is very narrow and the descent leaves very little margin for the bunch to regroup properly. With a little over 2.3km separating the end of the descent from the finish line, the sprinters' teams will need to climb and descend the Alto de la Ermita at the front of the bunch if they want to put their fast men into the best possible positions.
The sprint in Benifallet was won by Lopez Gil, ahead of Martinez and Sanchez Pimienta.
Since that start of the stage, many riders have dropped back to see the race doctors' car. First, it was David Garcia Da Pena (Xacobeo), then Cyclingnews blogger David Millar, followed by Xavier Tondo Volpini (Andalucia), Gustavo Dominguez Lemos (Xacobeo), Giovanni Bernaudeau (Bbox)... It's either the heat or injuries from Tuesday's crash in Belgium that makes the riders suffer.
Race favourites Alejandro Valverde (Caisse) and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) have not yet sought medical help though - they are sitting their woes out in the bunch. The Spaniard has several bruises, and "Vino" five stitches on his elbow. Ouch.
The breakaway has passed the feed zone now. They are still very much under control of the bunch, following just three minutes behind.
The race is held on flat, open roads now, passing through small villages. 2.24 minutes is the current gap between the break and the bunch.
Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) has been doing lots of work at the head of the bunch today, helped by some riders from Garmin, Liquigas and Columbia. Christian Meier (Garmin) is now pacing.
With 61 kilometres still to go, the stage seems already set for a bunch sprint. The breakaway should literally be cooked by these temperatures by now, and there are no real obstacles from here to the finish - unless we see a counter-attack at some point, for example on the Alto de la Ermita.
Olive tree plantations on both sides of the road. They do not offer much shade as they are quite small... A few spectators have bravely cut down the siesta to share the heat with the riders - but they a scarce.
The bunch is taking things easy now, being so close to the escape. Riders take the time to chat a bit as the average speed of the thrid hour of racing is 37.7 km/h.
Matteo Tosatto (QuickStep) crashed! He got a bike change and is now being taken care of by the race doctor. Some skin if off his knee, but that seems to be all fortunately.
The break's advantage is down to 1.23. The leaders are doing their best but conditions are tough.
A Lampre rider is getting some bottles behind the bunch at his team car; his jersey is full of bidons as he moves up again. Lots of work today if you're a water carrier in your team...
More spectators line the side of the road as the riders move up to Mas de Barberans. The road still climbs for a bit, until a downhil stretch will give the bunch some relief.
Tosatto, after his unfortunate crash, is back inside the bunch and should be alright. What misfortune to survive the rain of Belgium and then go down on perfectly dry roads in Spain! Maybe he just touched someone else's wheel - we don't know how it happened, but in any case he seems fine except for some scraped skin on his knee.
The breakaway only has one minute left over the bunch as they come down the hill.
The situation seems a bit odd: the bunch doesn't want to catch the break too soon, and the escapees know it'll soon be over for them anyway - so why bother continuing? The race has just slowed down right now.
Maybe someone will take an initiative soon, but the stage profile at this point doesn't offer any opportunities - until that last small climb with eight kilometres to go before Vinaros. But it only comes up in 30 kilometres....
The gap has slightly increased to 1.30 minutes again, as the peloton really takes it easy now.
The break is at the intermediate sprint in La Senia now. Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia) took the points.
The bunch is now taking up the whole of a two-lane country road as they're slowly moving towards Vinaros. Our five leaders do their job, taking turns, but without great commitment. But as a sprint Solidario comes up, Serfain Martinez jumps ahead again and scores it, anyway.
They've reached El Castell, a small town packed with cheering fans. A welcome change... maybe this will give the break some morale back?
Ah - we have an attempt of an attack. José Antonio Lopez Gil (Andalucía) is trying to jump away, marked by Matthé Pronk (Vacansoleil).
Nope, this didn't work. Especially since the bunch can see the break ahead now on this open road, and they're stepping up the pace. Just a few seconds left before the leftover escapee - Matthé Pronk - will also be caught.
With 20 kilometres to go, the sprinter teams are getting organised, looking for the best positions. There goes Pronk - good job by the Dutch rider, keeping it up until the very "end". Now, the race starts anew.
The road is much narrower now. Rabobank is leading the bunch out towards that last little bump, the Alto de la Ermita. We might see some fireworks there, even though the climb is not hard as such - it's just difficult to manouevre because of its narrow descent. You need to be placed to the front in order not to spend too much energy chasing back up in the final two kilometres to the finish.
Rabobank continues to set tempo. Milram, Cervelo, Columbia-HTC also have riders at the front of the peloton. The pace is currently a very brisk 63 km/h on a narrow, but straight, road.
The peloton just passes under the 10km to go banner. Rabobank still sets the tempo as the peloton is stretched out in a long line approaching the Alto de la Ermita.
Attack by Philippe Gilbert on the Alto de la Ermita!
It's inside of eight kilometres to go and Gilbert has a decent gap. He's descending on several fast, sweeping corners.
With six kilometres to go, Gilbert's gap is at 20 seconds. There's a crash in the peloton taking down a Quick Step and an AG2R rider.
The peloton is bearing down on Gilbert, with Quick Step on the front.
Gilbert is brought back with three kilometres to go. The peloton is all together being led by Columbia-HTC.
The peloton rounds the second to last corner. Columbia-HTC at the front.
Liquigas now setting the pace. Boonen is there along with Farrar.
André Greipel (Columbia-HTC) takes his second stage of the Vuelta! Greipel came off the wheel of Tom Boonen to take the win.
The peloton split approaching the finish line due to a crash. Looks like Ciolek took a hard fall.
With the time bonus for winning the stage, André Greipel (Columbia-HTC) has assumed the GC lead in the Vuelta.
That was it for today! Join us again tomorrow and thanks for reading along today.