Petacchi and his team show their quality

McGee keeps the golden jersey

The top candidate did it again. Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) won his first stage at the 2005 Vuelta a España today in Puertollano in a time of 3 hours, 48 minutes and 41 seconds. He beat Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) and Tom Boonen (Quick Step) in the expected bunch sprint. Bradley McGee (Française des Jeux) keeps the golden leader's jersey, even increasing his lead over his nearest rivals thanks to time bonuses garnered en route.

After another scorchingly hot day, the Fassa Bortolo team did a remarkable job in the last four kilometres to make things easy for their big star Alessandro Petacchi. The Italian outfit pushed hard and they got their prize by watching Ale-Jet crossing the line in first place.

"To win a sprint doesn't mean one is at his best condition," Petacchi told Spanish TV post-stage. "I feel better than last year, but I raced less than last year. I have to ride to get fit". His greatest goal for the near future is the World Championships in Madrid. "I trained very well, but I need time. I think I have a lot of time to do a good sprint on the World's. There's still one month ahead."

Santiago Botero (Phonak) commented to Spanish radio, "The heat was impressive. Fortunately there were no crashes, let's see how things go tomorrow. I'm taking the race day by day. The first day, you're at the start with strength, then you get tired. Let's see if we have that little push we need for Valdelinares [Stage 6], if not, we will fight for the time trial."

How it unfolded

196 riders took the start of the stage in Cordoba. Once again, the extreme heat was an important factor all day long. The thermometer marked around 40° C in some parts of the stage. There were many breakaway attempts but none could succeed in the first kilometres.

Finnish rider Jussi Veikkanen (Française des Jeux) got off the bike at km 55, likely because of back problems that have hampered him recently. 13 kilometres later, another rider stopped the race: Italy's Angelo Furlan (Domina Vacanze).

The sprinters' teams were determined not to let a breakaway go. Every time a group or riders wanted to get clear, the peloton chased hard and caught them. This was to be a day for the sprinters. The peloton eventually allowed Javier Pascual Rodriguez (Comunidad Valenciana) to make a lone breakaway at km 70. His chances of success were very scarce, as he was by himself and Fassa Bortolo and Quick Step were very strong behind.

Meanwhile, Française des Jeux commanded the peloton and protected the Vuelta leader Bradley McGee, who took third in the first bonus sprint at Fuencaliente (km 91) behind Javier Pascual Rodriguez and Joaquin Rodriguez. That gave the Australian two bonus seconds for his general classification time. After 100 km, Pascual Rodriguez had a gap of 3'45 to the peloton.

The big group caught Pascual Rodriguez just after the sprint at Puerto del Pulido (km 126.3), where McGee took second place and four more bonus seconds. Pascual Rodriguez knew his chances of victory were very small as he laboured against the heat.

The peloton rode together for some kilometres until Thomas Ziegler (Gerolsteiner) took his chances and attacked solo with 17 km to go. But the German endeavour was fruitless as Credit Agricole and Fassa were determined to force a bunch sprint. Ziegler was swallowed by the peloton with 4 km to go. From then on, it was a Fassa Bortolo show with its riders showing how good and committed to the team cause they were. They made the tempo and did not once relinquish the lead, with Marco Velo performing the final leadout with 400m to go to give Petacchi a clean run to victory.

Stage 4 - August 30: Ciudad Real-Argamasilla de Alba, 232.3 km

The riders will race the longest stage of the current Vuelta in Stage 4. They will ride 232.3 km from Ciudad Real to Argamasilla de Alba in the heart of Castilla-La Mancha. There are three intermediate sprints: Almagro, Daimiel and La Solana. The highest point will be Ossa de Montiel, at 900 meters above sea level. It's a special route for sprinters: the riders who dare to make a breakaway should consider the great length of the stage, and the likely heat. It seems Boonen, Zabel, Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and other specialists will have another chance.

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