Petacchi wins tight tussle

McGee maintains Vuelta lead

Today in Argamasilla de Alba, Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) took a second consecutive stage victory, prevailing in a tight sprint finish in 5 hours, 41 minutes and 29 seconds. Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) finished in second and third place, while Française des Jeux's Bradley McGee's overall leadership was never in jeopardy.

"200 metres from the line, [Tom] Steels jumped with much force, but I felt my progression was a good one. Today, after 233 kilometres, I made the best sprint and am satisfied," said a delighted Petacchi.

"This sprint was difficult to manage because of the rectangular-shaped finale. But when there were corners, my team-mates managed to keep things under control. However, to complicate things, a rider became part of our train in front of [Marco] Velo and we thought he wanted to do his job in the sprint. Instead, when [Alberto] Ongarato moved [over], he also moved, leaving too big a gap. At that point, Velo had to leave [the train] early and clearly decreased our speed in the end because he was tired," he said.

This is the stage win number 14 for Ale-Jet on the Vuelta: two wins in 2000, one in 2002, five in 2003, four in 2004 and two so far this year. And he certainly appears to be in great condition to contest the world road championships in Madrid come September 25.

Said Petacchi: "As far as the World's go, I will only say I have won two stages of the Vuelta and that the race on the 25th of September will be a long one and difficult to control. At the moment, I lack a little power and I hope that this Vuelta helps me to find it."

Roberto Heras (Liberty-Würth) who is ninth on the GC knows these days should not be taken lightly before the race enters his favoured territory: the big mountains. "It was a very long stage [indeed the longest of the three-week race - ed.]", said Heras to the media "with much heat. Fortunately, there was no wind."

Jose Antonio Pecharroman (Quick Step) also commented about the heat to Spanish TV, saying: "I'm used to this weather and I like this temperature." It wasn't as boiling as yesterday but the numbers were around 35°C.

How it unfolded

Overnight leader Bradley McGee didn't put his signature at the sign-in, and while it's compulsory for every rider to do so, the leader was late but wasn't penalised by the race organisers.

The first breakaway was made of four riders: Sebastien Joly (Credit Agricole), Leon Van Bon (Davitamon-Lotto), Frederic Finot (La Française des Jeux) and Christophe Edaleine (Cofidis). At the first intermediate sprint in Almagro (km 22), Edaleine was first, Van Bon second and Finot third.

The gap between the leaders and the peloton kept growing. At the second intermediate sprint in Daimiel (km 49), the advantage was 8'32. Edaleine passed in first place with Finot and Joly behind. By km 72, they had around 14 minutes' advantage to the peloton, and with a century completed, they led by 10'53. However, the gap began to be reduced as the peloton seemed to start working. At km 109, the difference was 7'44.

Led by Fassa Bortolo, Quick.Step and other a few other teams the leaders' advantage was 4'30 by km 129 as the race made its way through the Quijote lands of Castilla-La Mancha, the Spanish region that inspired Miguel de Cervantes to write his most famous book exactly 400 years ago. Inside Castilla-La Mancha, the peloton passed through Ossa de Montiel (km 142), Oscar Sevilla's native town where he still lives, and his neighbours duly saluted him.

Up front, Van Bon couldn't keep the pace of the other three leaders and was swallowed by the peloton at km 144. Six kilometres behind, the gap between the leaders and the peloton was 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

At km 186 (46.3 km to the finish), the three Frenchmen were caught by the peloton led by Fassa Bortolo, as Petacchi's men dominated proceeding. However, 20 kilometres from the finish, three cyclists dared to rebel Fassa's power: Benoit Joachim (Discovery Channel), Luis Pasamontes (Relax Fuenlabrada) and Torsten Schmidt (Gerolsteiner).

The three brave souls established a maximum 30-second gap that was completely destroyed 5km from the finish due to the pace of the Fassa Bortolo train. At the finish, Petacchi had more enemies as Marco Zanotti (Liquigas) and Tom Steels (Davitamon) also fought hard for the victory. Petacchi went right down the centre of the road and was fastest once again, this time by a few inches, with Erik Zabel and Thor Hushovd rounding out a very tight finish.

Stage 5 - August 31: Alcazar de San Juan-Cuenca, 176 km

Another typical stage around Castilla-La Mancha. There's only one climb: Category 3 Alto del Castillo (rising to 1120 meters above sea level), along with three intermediate sprints on the road: Campo de Criptana, Quintanar de la Orden and Carrascosa del Campo. The stage will end in Cuenca, a city very used to Vuelta stage finishes. The great sprinters will most likely have another chance to show their skills, but one could also see the first successful breakaway; the Alto del Castillo is not a big mountain, but sprinters' teams should be careful with this climb if they want to succeed tomorrow.

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