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Live coverage of stage 9 of the Vuelta a España, 183km from Villacastin to the summit of La Covatilla.
As we pick up the action at the feed zone near Piedrahita, there is a four rider break out in front with a lead of 9 minutes over the peloton.
With the race starting at the foot of the 3rd category Puerto Cruz del Hierro, there was an attacking start to proceedings this morning as weary legs in the bunch saw a number of gaps develop early on. It all came back together over the top of the climb, however, before Sebastian Lang (Omega Pharma-Lotto) broke the deadlock 15km in and jumped clear.
Jose Vicente Toribio (Andalucia Caja Granada) put in a stinging solo pursuit of Lang. The German wasn't hanging around, and it took Toribio 10km to close the gap.
While Toribio was hunting Lang, Vacansolil-DCM pair Martijn Keizer and Pim Ligthart sprang clear of the peloton, and after a long effort that took them through the scenic walled city of Avila, the Dutch duo finally latched onto the break at the 45km mark.
By that point, the leading quartet had an 8-minute buffer over the Katusha-propelled peloton, and that advantage stretched out to ten minutes shortly afterwards.
The Katusha team of red jersey Joaquim Rodriguez are - once again - on the front of the peloton. They're keeping one eye on the gap to the leading quartet, but their pace is decidedly steady at this stage in proceedings.
After a lacklustre season, Katusha have burst into life at the Vuelta a Espana, capturing three stages in the opening week through Rodriguez and Dani Moreno. While Rodriguez's victories on the steep finishes at Valdepenas de Jaen and San Lorenzo de El Escorial weren't hugely surprising in and of themselves, the collective force of the Katusha squad has been rather more unexpected.
Speaking before the start this morning, Rodriguez noted that his teammates might not be fully recovered from their efforts in setting up the finish yesterday and he was of the belief that a break would stay clear at least until the foot of La Covatilla.
“A breakaway will arrive at the climb for sure," Rodriguez said. "It’s another day for us to control the race, but my teammates need to recover a bit. However, if we can, the team will get me into a position to go for the win again because I’m interested in the time bonus. I’d like this climb to be a bit harder and shorter. The differences between us will depend on the wind. The wind can make the race hard.”
The final climb to La Covatilla is 18.2km in length with an average gradient of 5.8%. That seemingly low average gradient is large accounted for by the relatively gentle opening slopes of the climb, before it kicks up more harshly with 8km to go.
The toughest sections of the climb come between the 8 and 4km to go banners, but the final haul to the summit is by no means uncomplicated. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) is among the riders who is expecting the wind to pose a significant additional challenge.
“I remember watching that stage on TV five years ago,” Scarponi said. “It looked like an open field in the finale. That makes it hard with the wind. Many riders want to do well here today. In my opinion, it’s a stage for making the difference. I’d like to win but I believe that ‘Purito’ has the capacity to do it again. He needs to gain a time bonus because maybe he doesn’t go that well in the time trial.”
Speaking of the wind, the leading quartet have turned into a stiff headwind and their advantage is falling accordingly. They now lead the bunch by 7:50. It will be interesting to see how wind conditions are at an altitude of 1970 metres later on.
While Rodriguez and Scarponi did battle for the stage honours yesterday, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) endured something of a jours sans. While the Sicilian didn't expect to be able to match Rodriguez's acceleration on the sharp climb to the line, he will have been disappointed not to have been able to stay with the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Sky).
Nibali was a faller on Friday and it is possible that his injuries took their toll yesterday.He'll be hoping to be back at his best
for the time trial in Salamanca tomorrow, where it is imperative to put time into Rodriguez.
Interesting to note that Lampre-ISD are a visible presence towards the front of the Katusha-led peloton. Scarponi has been quietly bubbling under during the opening week, he might well look to strike this afternoon.
When the Vuelta finished at La Covatilla in 2006, it was Scarponi's fellow countryman Danilo Di Luca who emerged victorious. Di Luca, who tested positive for CERA in 2009, has struggled since returning with Katusha this season and was not included in the Russian team's Vuelta roster.
Incidentally, Andrey Kashechkin was third on that occasion, and the Kazakh - who tested positive for blood doping in 2007 - is at this Vuelta, in the colours of Astana.
Interesting to see Sebastian Lang in the breakaway. Though still only 32 years of age, the German is set to retire at the end of the season in order to spend more time with his family. He has done a lot of work on the front today.
The unity of the break has been fragmented, and Lang and Dutch champion Pim Ligthart have slipped clear of Toribio and Keizer.
It was Lang who took a flyer and Ligthart was wise to it. Ligthart's teammate Keizer was happy to let them go, and Toribio was the man who was caught out.
The pace is beginning to pick in the peloton with a little over 16km to go to the base of La Covatilla. Luca Paolini (Katusha) is among the riders active at the front. He'll be aiming to be the regista, or road captain, of the Italian team at the world championships in Copenhagen next month.
Lang and Ligthart have 1:27 over Toribio and Keizer, and a shade over 6 minutes in hand on the peloton.
Lang and Ligthart tackle a short drag through the town of Ledrada, and the contrast in their pace and that of the peloton is stark. They will survive until the foot of the final climb, but they will have their work cut out to hold off the likes of Rodriguez et al.
Ligthart takes a swig from a can of coke and then offers a drop to Lang. The heat is not quite as intense here as it was in Andalucia earlier in the week.
The crowds are out in force to greet Lang and Ligthart, but there will be considerably more gusto in their cheers when the red jersey of Joaquim Rodriguez rides past. Given Igor Anton's difficulties in the opening week, he represents Spain's best chance of overall victory, and he knows that today is a big day. He needs to stretch out his advantage ahead of tomorrow's time trial in Salamanca.
Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) comes to the front of the peloton to aid the pursuit. Igor Anton showed signs of recovery in recent days, and today's summit finish might present him with an opportunity to get his Vuelta back on track.
As Lang and Ligthart zip through Bejar en route to the foot of the final climb, the gap back to the peloton has dropped to 5 minutes.
In spite of Lang's best efforts, there must be a sense of grim inevitability about the leading duo's every pedal stroke. 4:40 is their advantage now, and that gap should fall even further before the climbing begins in earnest.
Jakob Fuglsang is marshalled up towards the front end of the peloton by a phalanx of Leopard Trek jerseys. The tension is growing among the overall contenders as the pace continues to ratchet upwards on the approach the La Covatilla.
Toribio and Keizer are swallowed up by the bunch, which is again being strung out by Katusha.
Lang leads through the intermediate sprint in Bejar, and he hits the foot of La Covatilla in the company of Ligthart with a four-minute advantage over the peloton.
Even though the climb 'proper' doesn't begin for another 10km, the leading pair are really up against it here.
Both Lang and Ligthart have their jerseys unzipped and are trying to maintain a steady rhythm, but the bunch is now stalking them at just 3:30.
A smart piece of opportunism from Joaquim Rodriguez. The red jersey clipped off the front of the bunch to hoover up the two bonus seconds on hand for third place in the intermediate sprint at Bejar. Given the paucity of his time trialling, he is more aware than most that he has to eke out the seconds any way he can.
Rodriguez is now safely tucked back in behind the Katusha train on the shallow opening slopes of La Covatilla. The overall contenders will surely look to keep their powder dry until the road really rears upwards with 8km to go, but that doesn't mean the pace in the peloton isn't taking its toll. For the next few kilometres, it will be an elimination race, with the selection being made at the rear of the pack.
Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) has been very visible at the head of the bunch all week, and he is putting in a fine effort here. His pace-setting has cut the break's lead to a shade over two minutes.
More worrying signs for Igor Anton. The Basque is near the back of the main peloton, ensconced in a pocket of orange Euskaltel jerseys.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) is well placed near the front of the peloton, as is Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack).
Tom Slagter (Rabobank) and Dario Cataldo (Quick Step) attack from the main peloton, but Katusha don't appear overly concerned and have the gap under control.
Cataldo and Slagter are quickly brought to heel, and their attack did little other than slice some more seconds off Lang and Ligthart's lead.
With just 1:30 in hand over the peloton, Lang has opted to rid himself of Ligthart and dances clear, then helps himself to a bidon from the team car.
Lang is continuing to set a decent rhythm as the climbing begins in earnest, but with just 1:10 over the bunch and the attacking about to start behind, he will be under no illusions about the scale of the task facing him.
A tired Ligthart is engulfed by the peloton, which is now being led at high speed by Alberto Losada (Katusha). Nibali's Liquigas-Cannondale guard are lined up behind him.
Przemyslaw Niemiec takes over at the front of the climb for Michele Scarponi. It's at this point that it begins to kick upwards definitively, and if one of the overall contenders wants to make a serious gain here, this is where to attack.
Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is riding well alongside Rodriguez.
The combination of the steepening slopes and Niemiec's pace-setting is wreaking havoc at the rear of the ever-shrinking main peloton, but the main contenders all seem to be still present and correct.
Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) is among the riders shelled out the back of the peloton.
Lang is still ploughing a lone furrow up front, but he knows his time out in front is limited.
Scarponi sits menacingly on Niemiec's wheel, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck is keeping a keen eye on proceedings.
Lang is caught by the red jersey group. The first major attack will have to come soon.
It duly arrives, but from an unexpected force - Rein Taaramae accelerates sharply and rips clear of the red jersey group.
Scarponi moves to close the gap, and the increase in pace sees Dani Moreno dropped off the back.
Scarponi moves past Taaramae and brings Jurgen Van Den Broeck with him. No response from Rodriguez.
Vincenzo Nibali heads to the front of the red jersey group, and his effort helps to reel in Scarponi again. The overall contenders are all back together again, but Anton has been jettisoned out the back of the group.
Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step) attacks and opens a gap.
Vincenzo Nibali moves across the gap with Van Den Broeck on his wheel.
Nibali et al are reeled and as soon as they are caught, Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervelo) accelerates with his cousin Nicolas Roche on his wheel.
It's a fine attack from Martin, and as he nods Roche through to do a turn on the front, the Irish tandem has a lead of ten seconds over the chasers.
Roche is unable to follow his cousin's pace and Martin continues alone. Behind, Scarponi and Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) jump across to Roche.
There is no response from Rodriguez, who sits in the red jersey group and is not looking as strong as in previous days.
Vincenzo Nibali was looking strong earlier on the climb, and he confirms that impression with a smart move. As Scarponi, Nieve and Roche are pegged back, Nibali attacks alone out of the red jersey group.
Nibali bridges across to Martin, and the duo are working together with a 12-second advantage over the group of favourites.
Remarkably it's Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins who are leading the chase in the red jersey group, while Scarponi is now struggling on the rear.
Under the 3km to go banner for Nibali and Martin. The duo are combining well to combat the stiff wind, and they still have 13 seconds over the red jersey group.
Sky's forcing is causing problems for Scarponi, and Rodriguez has also been dropped. The Spaniard looked untouchable yesterday, but the momentum of this Vuelta is swinging away from him here.
Froome's pressing looks to be narrowing the gap to Martin and Nibali, who are putting up stout resistance up front.
Wiggins, Mollema, Froome and Van Den Broeck have made it back up to Nibali and Martin.
Wiggins is now at the front of the race, setting the pace of the head of small group of leaders, with Nibali, Van Den Broeck, Mollema, Martin and Mauricio Ardila up there too. 32 seconds the gap back to Rodriguez.
Van Den Broeck is in difficulty now under the impetus of Wiggins' forcing. A remarkable turn of events. The Englishman is doing all the work.
Rodriguez is in all sorts of difficulty behind, with just Dani Moreno back there to help him.
Under the red kite for the Wiggins group and they have 45 seconds on Rodriguez. Wiggins is still forcing the pace and not looking for any help. He wants to distance Rodriguez.
Wiggins gets out of the saddle. Can he ride everyone off his wheel and take the stage?
Dan Martin jumps for home with 200 metres to go, clever move from the Irishman.
Martin takes the win! Just clear of Bauke Mollema.
A fine performance from Martin, who was rewarded for his earlier aggression on the climb. He chose his moment wisely in the finishing straight to jump clear of Wiggins. Mollema did his best to close the gap, but he didn't have the legs to match Wiggins.
Juan Jose Cobo (Geox-TMC) was third, just ahead of Wiggins and Froome. Nibali was 11 seconds back in 6th at the rear of the lead group.
Bauke Mollema's second place finish is enough to lift him into the overall lead, one second clear of Rodriguez, who cracked in the finale, and 9 seconds ahead of Nibali, who struggled in the finishing straight.
1 Daniel Martin (Irl) Team Garmin-Cervelo 4:52:14
2 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:00:00
3 Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Geox-TMC 0:00:03
4 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:04
5 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:07
6 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:11
7 Rein Taaramae (Est) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne 0:00:12
8 Denis Menchov (Rus) Geox-TMC 0:00:12
9 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) Team RadioShack 0:00:12
10 Fredrik Kessiakoff (Swe) Pro Team Astana 0:00:12
General classification after stage 9
1 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
2 Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:01
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:09
4 Fredrik Kessiakoff (Swe) Pro Team Astana 0:00:16
5 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:00:27
6 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:35
7 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek 0:00:37
8 Kevin Seeldraeyers (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team 0:00:42
9 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) Team RadioShack 0:00:42
10 Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Geox-TMC 0:00:46
Dan Martin's victory sees him enter the elite group of Irish riders to have won stages at the Vuelta a Espana. Shay Elliott got the ball rolling with a stage win in 1962 en route to 3rd place overall, and Sean Kelly took 16 stages and the 1988 overall title in the 1980s, before Philip Deignan tasted victory in Avila two years ago.
It was a hugely impressive ride from Bauke Mollema too, who dislodged Nibali in the finale to take full advantage of Rodriguez's travails and move into the overall lead. Rodriguez lost 48 seconds on the road today, but psychologically that will be a huge setback ahead of tomorrow's time trial. One man whose morale will be on a high is Bradley Wiggins, of course, who was so assured in the closing kilometres.
Thanks for joining us for our live coverage of today's stage of the Vuelta a Espana. We'll be back for more from tomorrow's crucial time trial, but in the meantime stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full results, reports and pictures, as well as all the news from Spain.