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Pyrenees bring thrills and agony to Vuelta

Devolder cracks, Menchov takes gold while Piepoli gets the thrill of victory

The ninth stage of the Vuelta a España brought the thrill of victory to the Saunier Duval and Rabobank camps, while the Discovery team was left with the agony of defeat on the long final climb to the ski station in Cerler. The morning's overall leader, Stijn Devolder, was in difficulty early on the final climb as Saunier Duval's Leonardo Piepoli poured on the pressure. Rabobank's Russian leader Denis Menchov held fast to the Italian's wheel as Devolder fell farther and farther behind, watching the overall lead slip rapidly from his grasp.

By the summit, only Menchov could stay with Piepoli, and the Russian allowed the 35 year-old to take the stage while other favourites struggled in behind. Carlos Sastre lost 17 seconds, Cadel Evans 1'03, but by far the worst off was Devolder, who finished a disappointing 4'58" back.

Piepoli was thrilled to have the stage win. "I'm so happy with this," he said after the stage. "A stage win is important for both me and the team, all the more so if it comes in a grand tour. I had pointed at three particular stages in this Vuelta: Lagos, Cerler and Andorra. In Lagos, I managed second and today I finished first, which means I can feel happy about my results so far."

Piepoli, who ran into some difficulties after testing 'non-negative' for the asthma medication Ventolin during the Giro d'Italia, was allowed to race after the Monaco cycling federation dropped the charges. The Italian admitted he had no aspirations to win the overall Vuelta. "Why not fight for the GC? I used to do it, once I ended 8th, but now I'd rather raise my arms in victory after a stage. At my age, my career is almost done so I prefer this to being 4th or 6th in the GC. I'd like to dedicate this victory to my first son, Yanis, who'll be born soon."

Rabobank assistant director Adri van Houwelingen was surprised that Menchov was able to take the gold jersey so soon in the race. "We knew Menchov was doing well," he said according to the team's website. "Honestly, we expected the gap with Devolder to be around one minute before the rest day, with Denis in the leading position. Now, the number two is already at two minutes."

The race is far from wrapped up, and Monday's tenth stage will hit the riders with another, more difficult, hors catégorie finishing climb. "A lot will depend on the strength of our team," acknowledged Van Houwelingen. "Are we strong enough to control the race? That is what we are going to see right now. The danger comes from the second line. We need to be on the alert for that."

Agony of defeat for Pereiro

The agony of defeat was dealt to the Caisse d'Epargne squad when its leader, Oscar Pereiro had to abandon today. Pereiro fell ill the morning of Saturday's time trial and suffered through to a respectable finish, but there was no more left in the tank to tackle the mountains Pyrenean stage on Sunday. The Caisse d'Epargne struggled through the first two climbs but could not hold on to the group and finally abandoned at kilometre 99.

"I had no energy to continue," Pereiro said. "I tried to stay in the race as long as possible, but it was useless. This morning I felt much better, but it's evident that I did not recuperate. I had needed one or two quiet stages, but today we had a mountain stage, and furthermore it started very fast."

Pereiro had targeted the Vuelta all year, and was determined to stay with the race for as long as he could, but the parcours spelled disaster for the Spaniard. "I let go of the peloton as the circuit began to rise. It's a pity because the Vuelta was my objective and I prepared for it very well. The circuit favoured my characteristics. But I have to accept it and to think of the future."

The Spaniard is confident that his team-mate, Russian Vladimir Efimkin, will be able to do a great Vuelta. "I trust that my team will go on very well in this Vuelta and I believe that Vladimir Efimkin has many possibilities to continue doing great things, like he did it until today, despite the superiority of [Denis] Menchov," said Pereiro. Indeed, Efimkin did well to hold the wheels of a select group of climbers, and now sits in second overall, 2'01 behind Menchov.

Monika Prell and Antonio J. Salmerón contributed to this report.

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