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Welcome to live coverage of stage 8 of the Vuelta a España, 174km from Lleida to the summit of Collada de la Gallina, in Andorra.
As we pick up the action, a six-man break has just gone escaped up the road and has an advantage of one minute over the peloton. Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge), Javier Ramirez (Andalucia), Amael Moinard (BMC), Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), Francisco Aramendia (Caja Rural) and Marijn Keizer (Vacansoleil-DCM) forced their way clear after 75 kilometres after a searingly fast opening hour and a half of racing.
Aided by a tailwind and with teammates of a number of potential dangermen trying to slip into the day's early break, there was a ferocious pace from the moment the flag was dropped in Lleira. The end result? An average speed of some 52kph for the first hour of racing.
Sky and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank were among the team's forcing the pace during the early exchanges, unhappy with the consitution of the first breaks of the day, but they're happy to let this sextet dangle off the front. The pace in the peloton has relented and the escapees' now have a lead of 3:42.
Today's stage brings the peloton into Andorra and features two categorised climbs, the 2nd category Alto de la Comella (3.8km at 5.2%) and the 1st category climb to the finish at Collada de la Gallina (7.2km at 8%).
The day's final climb has a rather gentle beginning but then the gradient ratchets upwards in the final 4km, with stretches in excess of 15%. Not surprisingly, red jersey and local favourite Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) is looking forward to the shoot-out on La Gallina. "It doesn’t matter if we start climbing in first position or a bit further as it isn’t hard at the bottom," he said. "The last four kilometers are difficult and very straight with ramps between 15 and 20%."
In the overall standings, Rodriguez has a lead of 10 seconds on Chris Froome (Sky) and 36 seconds over Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), and he will fancy his chances of extending that today, particularly with the time bonuses on offer at the finish.
1 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 25:53:04
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:10
3 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 0:00:36
4 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:00:54
5 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team
6 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:04
7 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:01:12
8 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:01:17
9 Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:34
10 Sergio Luis Henao Montoya (Col) Sky Procycling 0:01:39
Out on the road, meanwhile, the break has taken full advantage of the detente in the main peloton and has increased its advantage to 7:14.
Lance Armstrong's decision not to contest USADA's charges of doping and conspiracy has dominated the headlines over the past two days, with reactions ranging from Eddy Merckx's tiresome "but he never tested positive" line of defence to Filippo Simeoni's mixed feelings at how justice had taken its time in coming.
Speaking on Dublin's98FM
, Paul Kimmage welcomed the news, but expressed his regret that the weight of evidence built up by USADA might not get the kind of public airing it warrants. "The only disappointment in it is that we don’t know the degree to which the governing body was complicit in this and the same people that facilitated this are still in charge of the UCI now," Kimmage said. "That would lend me to be pessimistic. Who’s to say it can’t happen again with somebody else. That’s the question mark for me in terms of how the sport goes on and what the future is for the sport."
Back on the road to Andorra, the six escapees now have a lead of 8:25 over the peloton, which is being led by the Katusha team of Joaquim Rodriguez.
After two hours of racing, the average speed is an eye-watering 49kph, but that tempo will surely begin to drop as the route begins the long, gradual rise into the Pyrenees.
The last time the Vuelta came to Andorra was in 2010, when Igor Anton took the stage honours and moved into the red jersey. The Basque's race would end in disappointment three days later, however, when he crashed out on the road to Peña Cabarga. Currently over two minutes down in 14th place, Anton insists that he still concentrating solely on the general classification of this Vuelta. “I’m focused on GC exclusively and for now, I’m happy with the form I have," he said. "Last time that we went to Andorra with the Vuelta, I won. It’s an excellent memory but this time, all my efforts are for my overall ranking.”
The six leaders have stretched their margin out still further and now lead the peloton by 9:26.
Sky and Katusha continue to set the tempo on the front end of the peloton, but for now they seem content simply to keep the break's advantage pegged within 10 minutes.
Mickael Buffaz leads the break through Montferrer, scene of the day's first intermediate sprint.
Sky takes over primary responsibility for the pace-making in the main peloton and the gap to the break has come down to a shade over 8 minutes.
As the race passes into Andorra, Sky continue to whittle away at the break's lead. The gap is now down to seven minutes, with a shade under 20 kilometres to go until the foot of the day's first climb, the second category Alto de la Comella.
David Moncoutie has been a low-key presence on this Vuelta so far, but after winning a stage and the king of the mountains title in each of the past four Vueltas, he is a dab hand at picking the right moment to strike. While his teammate Buffaz is up the road today, Moncoutie says he's biding his time until after the rest day. "I knew before the start that there wouldn’t be many opportunities for me in the first week," Moncoutie said. "To win the polka dot jersey, I have to wait for the three stages in the Asturias. I need hard courses at the beginning of the stage for breaking away from far, but we haven’t had any yet.”
Incidentally, Moncoutie's Cofidis teammate Yohan Bagot was a non-starter this morning after sustaining a broken elbow in his crash inside the final 10 kilometeres of yesterday's stage.
Sky's tempo is making significant inroads into the escapees' advantage. The men in black have taken over a minute off in the past ten kilometres, and the margin is down to 5:35.
Buffaz again picks up maximum points at the intermediate sprint as the break enters the final 30 kilometres of racing.
After three hours of racing, the average speed remains a brisk 46.3kph.
Sky continue to chip away at the break's lead in minutes rather than seconds. The gap is down to 4:36 on the approach to the day's first climb.
Sky are making big gains on the long false flat section that brings the race to the foot of the day's first climb. Their deficit to the break is now 3:56. Chris Froome sits in 5th position as Xabier Zandio leads the peloton.
The six leaders have begun their ascent of the Alto de la Comella. Amael Moinard sets the pace and his only Meyer, Ramirez and Buffaz can match his tempo.
Behind, Sky have not only sliced the gap to just 3 minutes, Froome's team has also significantly reduced the size of the peloton.
Riders were being jettisoned off the back of the main peloton even before the Comella began and the weeding out process is continuing on the climb proper.
Ramirez, Buffaz, Moinard and Meyer are collaborating well at the front but such is the intensity of the pursuit behind, their advantage is crumbling in spite of their best efforts.
Richie Porte takes over from Zandio on the front. Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao are lined up on his wheel, just ahead of Froome. It certainly seems as though Sky have ear-marked today as a real opportunity to put Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) in difficulty, perhaps mindful that he might ride his way into better form as the Vuelta progresses.
Meyer, Buffaz and Moinard have shed themselves of Ramirez at the head of the race, but there is a rather ineluctable air about the pursuit behind.
Ramirez attacks and leads over the top of the Comella ahead of Meyer and Moinard.
Richie Porte leads the pared-down peloton over the top of the climb 2:30 behind the leaders. Reports reaching us that Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) suffered a mechanical problem on the climb, but this has not been confirmed by the television pictures as yet.
Over the top of the Comella, Moinard jumps away from his breakaway companions, but he'll have his work cut out to defend a 2:30 lead over the bunch all the way to the line.
Moinard is duly brought back to heel and the four leaders are on the run-in to the foot of the day's final climb.
The four leaders have begun the final haul to the line, while the Sky-propelled peloton is flying towards the foot of the climb at a rate of knots.
There are four Sky riders drilling on the front and lining out the entire peloton.
Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar) is among the riders who has been deposited out the back of the main peloton, one of a number of riders to wilt under Sky's pace-making.
At the front of the race, Cameron Meyer is leading the break on the narrow roads of the climb, but their lead is down to just 1:20.
Sky have been at the front for a long, long time today, the latest in a long, long series of somewhat startling displays this season.
Rigoberto Uran takes over on the front for Sky. The main peloton has been reduced to around 25 riders or so, but it seems as though all of the main overall contenders are still present. Nonetheless, considering that there has been just one second category climb before now, it's remarkable that they have succeeded in whittling down the peloton to such an extent.
Ramirez forces the issue in the break as the gradient begins to stiffen, but the pace behind them is relentless.
Uran swings over in the main peloton, and Henao is the man charged with shepherding Froome into the final kilometres. Alberto Contador sits on Froome's wheel.
Cameron Meyer forces his way clear of the break as he enters the toughest section of the climb.
The gap to the main peloton is down to just 45 seconds, however, as Henao climbs out the saddle with Froome and Contador lined up on his wheel.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) attacks from the main peloton and there is no immediate reaction from Henao and Froome.
Froome leads Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Dani Moreno (Katusha) back up to Valverde's rear wheel.
After clawing his way back up, Froome goes on the offensive and only Contador can match his rhythm.
Froome and Contador bridge up to Meyer, the lone leader. They have a lead of 15 seconds or so over Rodriguez, Moreno and Valverde.
Rodriguez, Moreno and Valverde rejoin Froome, Contador and Meyer at the front of the race. Igor Anton and Benat Inxausti give chase a handful of seconds behind.
A seated Froome turns the screw once again, but Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde are able to follow.
Rodriguez is the next amn to attack and Contador the first to follow, but when the dust settles there are still four men together in front - Froome, Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez.
Anton and Inxausti are chasing behind, while Meyer has been dropped.
Inside the final kilometre, Chris Froome puts in another acceleration, but he can't rid himself of Contador et al.
800 metres from home, Contador responds in kind and he rips clear of Froome, Valverde and Rodriguez.
A dancing Contador opens out a gap of ten seconds or so with 500 metres to go.
It looked as though Contador had won the stage, but a ferocious acceleration from Rodriguez brings Valverde back up to his shoulder inside the last 200 metres, while Froome struggles...
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) rips past to take the stage win, while Rodriguez comes across the line in second place, just ahead of Contador.
Froome had no response inside the final 500 metres and looked in some difficulty as he crossed the line 8 seconds down on the three leaders.
Froome had no response inside the final 500 metres and looked in some difficulty as he crossed the line 15 seconds down on the three leaders.
1 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 4:06:39
2 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team
3 Alberto Contador (Esp) Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank
4 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 00:00:15
5 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 00:00:23
6 Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Spa) Movistar Team 00:00:33
7 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel – Euskadi
8 Winner Anacona Gomez (Col) Lampre - ISD 00:00:39
9 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
10 Przemyslaw Niemiec (Pol) Lampre – ISD 00:00:42
Overall, Joaquim Rodriguez extends his lead over Chris Froome to 33 seconds, while Contador is 3rd at 40 seconds.
1 Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 29:59:35
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 00:00:33
3 Alberto Contador (Esp) Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank 00:00:40
4 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 00:00:50
5 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 00:01:41
6 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 00:01:48
7 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 00:02:14
8 Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi 00:02:47
9 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 00:02:58
10 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 00:03:07
Thanks for joining Cyclingnews for our live coverage on a day that saw Alberto Contador thwarted in his attempt to take his first victory since his return from suspension, as stage honours fell to Alberto Valverde, who has now won two stages in his first Vuelta since he came back from suspension earlier in the year... We'll be back with more live coverage from the Vuelta, but in the meantime, you will find full results, report and pictures from today's stage here.