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Welcome to Cyclingnews’ live coverage of stage 2 of the Vuelta a España, 174km from La Nucìa to Playas de Orihuela.
With just one climb on the agenda, the 3rd category Alto de Relleu, and a long flat run-in to the finish, it will be a major surprise if today’s stage doesn’t finish in a bunch sprint. Alessandro Petacchi won a little further inland in the town of Orihuela itself at the end of a stage over some similar terrain at last year’s Vuelta, but today’s finish is at Playas de Orihuela, just south of Torrevieja.
On the opening road stage of a major tour, however, there are always a few hardy souls who will try and upset the applecart, and as we pick up the action 60km in, a four-man break consisting of Paul Martens (Rabobank), Adam Hansen (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Jesus Rosendo Prado (Andalucia Caja Granada) and Steve Houanard (Ag2r-La Mondiale) has a lead of 6 minutes over the peloton.
That quartet slipped up the road inside the first kilometre, and with temperatures touching a searing 38.5º C, the peloton sensibly left them to it.
Once their lead reached 5 minutes at the 30km mark, the Leopard Trek team of race leader Jakob Fuglsang came to the front of the peloton to keep one eye on proceedings, but with a sedate 35.2km covered in the first hour of racing, there seemed little danger that the break’s advantage would spiral out of control.
The only brief chink in the unity of the leading group to date came on the climb of Alto de Relleu after 28km. Rosendo Prado went on the attack to try and take the points at the summit, but Martens followed and outsprinted him at the top, earning himself a trip to the podium ceremonies in Playas de Orihuela this afternoon. Hansen crossed the line in third.
The talented Paul Martens has quietly been collecting solid results over the past number of seasons, but as he approaches 28 years of age, he needs to put in a breakout performance.
Jesus Rosendo Prado was named as having fallen foul of the UCI's biological passport system in May 2010 along with Franco Pellizotti and Tadej Valjavec, but he claimed that his irregular blood values were caused by a case of haemorrhoids in April 2009 and he returned to action before the end of last season.
Back in the peloton, there's a puncture for last year's winner Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), but the Sicilian gets a quick wheel change and is soon back in the peloton.
Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC) also drops back to his team car for some mechanical assistance. Leopard Trek are continuing to lead the peloton, and the gap to the four escapees has been gently shaved back down to 5:28.
After heading inland to tackle the day's sole climb, the peloton is back hugging the coast on the outskirts of Alicante, and this will be familiar terrain to much of the peloton (not to mention to many of the journalists on the race). In December and January, the Costa Blanca is a very common location for training camps. Calpe, which is a little north of here, is a particularly popular spot, and Alicante is the airport of choice for many riders.
Coming through Alicante, the gap is down to 5:04, and - mercifully - the temperature is also beginning to drop a little. It is now 'only' 33º.
Logically, given the flatter roads, the second hour of racing was a little quicker, and the average speed to date is up to 38.3kph.
The gap to the four escapees is continuing to unravel gently, and is now down to 4:48, but there is still a long way to go to the finish.
Along the coast south of Alicante there is also the possibility of a crosswind to cause problems in the peloton, so the overall contenders will certainly need to be vigilant here.
Indeed, with the summit finish at Sierra Nevada arriving on Tuesday, the overall contenders know that they need to be on form right from the beginning of his Vuelta. Nibali admitted that he deliberately wasn't at 100% ahead of the Giro given the extreme difficulty in its third week. The hardship is a little more equitably divided throughout the Vuelta, however, and Nibali believes it's crucial to hit the ground running here. He got off to a good start in yesterday's team time trial.
At the first intermediate sprint in Santa Pola, Jesus Rodendo Prado beats Hansen and Houanard.
The breakaways have a lead of 4:55 as they pass through the feed zone at Elche.
The peloton slows as it passes through the feed zones, allowing the leading quartet stretch their advantage out to 5:37.
Red jersey Jakob Fuglsang is looking comfortable in the main field. In crossing the line at the head of the Leopard Trek train yesterday, he became the second Dane to hold the overall lead at the Vuelta. The first? His directeur sportif Lars Michaelsen.
That year's Vuelta began in Portugal with a road stage from Lisbon to Estoril, familiar to Formula 1 fans as the home of the Portuguese Grand Prix. Michaelsen won the bunch sprint to take the yellow jersey (as it then was - it turned gold in 2000 and red last year) and held it for four days in total.
Michaelsen lost his jersey for one day to Fabrizio Guidi (who is incidentally now a directeur sportif at Michaelsen and Fuglsang's former Saxo Bank team), but regained it on the road to Malaga.
The next day Laurent Jalabert took the stage and the overall lead in Granada, ending Michaelsen's spell in yellow.
Leopard Trek have been joined at the front of the peloton by Liquigas-Cannondale, Skil-Shimano and HTC-Highroad, who are working for their sprinters Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish, respectively. The break's lead is 6 minutes with 62km to go, hence the slight injection of pace in the main bunch, but the speed is by no means excessive.
Peter Sagan was bullish about his chances of victory when he went to sign on this morning. “I know that the finish suits me and if I have the same good legs as yesterday, I can win," he said. "But it depends on Vincenzo (Nibali). If he feels good and if the climb before the end is hard enough, we might set up the finish for him.”
With a kilometre to go today, there is a brief 5% rise, but it's unlikely that the overall contenders will look to show their hand there.
HTC-Highroad are old hands at slowly reeling in long breakaway attempts. Since the white jerseys have massed at the front of the peloton, the break's lead has been cut by a minute and the bunch is beginning to stretch out slightly.
Back in the main field, Mark Cavendish is looking comfortable as he rides alongside Denis Menchov. It often takes the Manxman a couple of sprints to feel his way into a grand tour, as we saw on the corresponding stage last year, when he lost out to Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ). Cavendish gave a sound demonstration of his sprinting form last week, however, with a fine win at the Olympic test event in London. He lost contact with the HTC squad in the finale of yesterday's team time trial and came in 2:45 down.
The break's efforts are beginning to tell. All four seem a little more ragged in style now, and their lead is inside 4 minutes as HTC-Highroad continue to set the pace in the company of Liquigas-Cannondale.
Fabian Cancellara is wearing the red dossard of most aggressive rider after his powerful showing at the head of the Leopard Trek squad in yesterday's team time trial. The Swiss rider will have bigger prizes in mind this Autumn, of course. He is chasing a 5th world time trial title in Copenhagen, and if he can recapture the frankly terrifying form he showed at the GP E3 Harelbeke in March, he'll be among the favourites for the road race too.
While Cavendish is the undisputed top dog in the HTC sprint hierarchy, the team have a number of options in today's finish, particularly given that Cavendish is out of the running to take the red jersey. Young fast man John Degenkolb, who is set to join Skil-Shimano next year, said at the start that he might be given the chance to sprint for the win today. “We haven’t decided yet who we will sprint for, I might get my
chance as the finish suits me on paper”, said Degenkolb.
Jesus Rosendo clips off the front of the break on the approach to the second intermediate sprint at Dolores. Instead of checking his effort after picking up the points, Rosendo seems to have decided to take a punt by himself as the gap tumbles to 2:30 under HTC's impetus.
Rosendo has been brought to heel by this three breakaway companions, and Paul Martens leads the group up a short drag.
Every false flat is taking its toll on the leading quartet now, and their advantage is continuing to fall steadily. Adam Hansen takes a long pull on the front, but in spite of their best efforts, the peloton is now closed to within two minutes of the escapees.
With a seemingly sprinter-friendly world championships on the horizon, it's hardly surprising that there is no shortage of fast men on show in this Vuelta. As well as the established names like Cavendish, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi and Tom Boonen, some of the new generation are testing the grand tour waters here too. Chief among them is Marcel Kittel, who was dominant in the sprints at the Tour of Poland, and the multi-talented Peter Sagan, who went on to win the race overall.
Rosendo is forcing the pace at the front of the breakaway, but there is an air of inevitability about how all of this is going to pan out for them. Their lead is down to 1:07, and it's simply a matter of timing for the peloton behind.
Adam Hansen drops back to talk with his team car, and then takes a flyer when the rest of the breakaway aren't looking.
Hansen has around 10 seconds over the rest of the breakaway. There isn't a huge deal of enthusiasm for the pursuit from that trio given that the peloton is just a minute behind.
Hansen has committed himself fully to his attack here, as he drains a bidon and presses on alone.
On the long, flat and straight roads of the past 20km, the breakaways have rarely been out of sight of the peloton, and the pace is continuing to ratchet upwards on the run-in to the finish.
The peloton is briefly bottlenecked as it passes through some narrow roads at Guardamar del Segura, but there don't appear to have been any fallers.
Houanard has been dropped by Martens and Rosendo, but that pair won't stay clear of the peloton much longer either. Up ahead, Hansen is putting up fierce resistance, and maintains a lead of 48 seconds over the bunch.
Martens and Rosendo have also been caught by the peloton, and it's left to the plucky Hansen to plough his lone furrow 40 seconds up the road.
It will be interesting to see what Martens' teammate Oscar Freire can conjure up in the sprint finish today. The veteran Spaniard has been telling anyone who'll listen that his form isn't where he wants it to be, but that has never stopped him from popping up to take some very big wins in the past.
Even in the late afternoon, the heat is still intense here on the road to Playas de Orihuela.
Sebastian Lang has come to the front of the peloton to try and hinder the HTC chase in support of his teammate Adam Hansen. Incidentally, though still only 31, German is set to retire at the end of the season.
Alessandro Petacchi is safely tucked in near the front of the peloton, which is currently travelling at 65kph.
Bert Grabsch is doing a wonderful job of setting the pace for HTC-Highroad at the head of the peloton. They'll have to be careful not to bring Hansen's move back too soon, however.
HTC-Highroad leave the sport at the end of this season and it will be interesting to see which team takes up their mantle as the organisers-in-chief of bunch finishes in the grand tours. A lot of that succession may be linked to Mark Cavendish's destination for 2012, of course...
Hansen is swallowed up by the peloton, and it's now up to HTC-Highroad to keep the race under control on the run-in to the line.
The bunch is strung out in a long line, and there are gaps beginning to develop at the rear of the field. The overall contenders will need to be very vigilant here.
Remarkable performance from Adam Hansen. After being caught by the bunch, the Australian is now contributing to the pace-setting at the head of the peloton.
Simon Geschke (Skil-Shimano) has hit the front of the bunch now in support of Marcel Kittel. The German neo-pro is competing in his first ever grand tour, and it will be fascinating to see if he can mix it with Cavendish et al.
Fabian Cancellara is also near the front and he'll be protecting the interests of Daniele Bennati, who could inherit the red jersey from his teammate Fuglsang.
With seemingly effortless poise, Cancellara nudges his way to the front of the peloton and sets the pace.
Stuart O'Grady joins Cancellara at the front with 3km to go.
Leopard Trek are trying to organise things here, while Tony Martin moves towards the front for HTC-Highroad. Plenty of sprinters fancy their chances here, it could be a chaotic finish.
Davide Vigano' leads for Leopard Trek and slips clear of the peloton under the red kite.
On the uphill section in the final kilometre, Boonen launches the hostilities.
Boonen launched his effort from too far out, and he is swallowed up as the road flattens out 250 metres from home.
And it's Sky's Chris Sutton who times his effort to perfection to hit the front 150 metres from home and hold on to take the win.
Sutton came around Vicente Reynes (Omega Pharma-Lotto) in the finale to take the win.
Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) took 3rd just ahead of Tyler Farrar, while Matti Breschel (Rabobank) finished in 5th.
Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek) moves into the red jersey ahead of his teammate Jakob Fuglsang thanks to his position on today's stage.
1 Christopher Sutton (Aus) Sky Procycling
2 Vicente Reynes Mimo (Spa) Omega Pharma-Lotto
3 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Skil - Shimano
4 Tyler Farrar (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo
5 Matti Breschel (Den) Rabobank Cycling Team
6 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Leopard Trek
7 Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Pro Team Astana
8 Lloyd Mondory (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
9 Luca Paolini (Ita) Katusha Team
10 John Degenkolb (Ger) HTC-Highroad
Bennati's 6th place finish is enough to move him up into the red jersey.
The uphill section in the final kilometre proved to be far tougher than anyone expected, and it upset more than a few of the sprinters. Boonen's effort on the drag was impressive, but ill-timed. He burned off a number of the fast men, however, and Reynes and Sutton managed to get a gap as the road flattened out.
That finish didn't quite turn out as expected, but it's worth noting that Marcel Kittel coped well with the sting in that final kilometre, and was the best of the rest behind Sutton and Reynes. An assured start to his grand tour sprinting career, even though he'll be aware that competition is going to be fierce for stage wins here.
After Sky's hugely disappointing team time trial yesterday, Sutton's victory will be a considerable boost to the team's morale.
1 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Leopard Trek 4:28:11
2 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek
3 Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:04
4 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
5 Valerio Agnoli (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
6 John Degenkolb (Ger) HTC-Highroad 0:00:09
7 Maxime Monfort (Bel) Leopard Trek 0:00:10
8 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Skil - Shimano
9 Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Pro Team Astana
10 Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Pro Team Astana
Thanks for joining us for our live coverage of today's stage of the Vuelta a España. We'll be back for more tomorrow, but in the meantime, stay tuned to Cyclingnews for all the news, results, report and pictures from a scorching opening road stage in Spain.