Millar back on top

Renaissance for reformed Scot, while Valverde holds off rivals

In this year of Operación Puerto, in this fallout period after the Floyd Landis affair, David Millar’s winning message at the end of stage 14 in Cuenca was a very important one for the sport of cycling.

“I want everybody to understand something, even my fellow professional cyclists and the fans who love cycling: I am doing this on nothing, only on bread and water,” he stressed at the post-race press conference, voice full of conviction. “I do not believe in any injections of any sort for recuperation. We can perform at the highest level in cycling without any medical help.

“Today was a purely physical test. I won, and I am 100% clean. Some people may not believe me, but if you know me you will believe me after what I am have been through. I love my sport and I want everyone to know that you can win the biggest races on bread and water.”

Millar returned to racing in this year’s Tour de France following a two-year ban for admitting to the use of EPO. He lost his 2003 world time trial crown as a result, and by all reports suffered very badly due to the pressure he was under. However he decided to come back to the sport and while the time trials in the Tour de France didn’t work out as well as he had hoped, winning today’s race against the clock – and taking his third ever Vuelta stage win – was a massive relief.

“This victory is a renaissance, a new beginning, a new start. I have been very nervous, like a junior. But this is like a new start for me. I was very nervous beforehand, I knew I felt good but I didn’t know what that would represent today. I just went out and pushed myself hard…really, really hard.”

When Millar decided to come back to the sport, he vowed to do so clean and thus show it was possible to win big without doping. He thanked those who stood by him in chasing this goal. “I would like to dedicate this win to my team Saunier Duval and to [directeur sportif] Mario Gianetti, who believed in me. They were one of the only teams who did believe in me, believed that I could come back. And also to British Cycling, to the national team and to Dave Brailsford and Simon Jones, who risked a lot in helping me, who believed in me 100% and taught me how to do cycling without drugs. To believe in and to love the sport. I would really like to thank them.”

Today’s race was seen as a big showdown between race leader Alejandro Valverde, historically a weak [but improving] time trialist, who was up against more proven riders in the discipline such as Alexandre Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) and Carlos Sastre (CSC]. Valverde succeeded in his goal of retaining the maillot oro, finishing just five seconds behind Vinokourov in taking fourth place, and ahead of Kashechkin, Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel), Laslo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole) and Sastre.

However the first two places went to specialist time trial riders who started off earlier in the day, namely Millar and Fabian Cancellara. They ended up being separated by only fractions of a second, the 29 year old Scot pipping the 25 year old Swiss by the smallest of margins, and finishing five in front of Vino.

Cancellara had led at the first time check and was second behind Vinokourov at the second, but a motivated Millar accelerated from that point to take the quickest time at the line. He said that his strategy was carefully worked out. “I had planned my whole time trial, as I always do. I hadn’t gone 100% on the climb so I arrived at the top and I was then ready to go. I turned it on when I got to the summit, it was all calculated.”

He then had a long wait until the top riders in the general classification finished. “I was very nervous…I was sitting there, sweating…”

“As regards my future, I want wins. Many more wins. The worlds is my big objective. I want to win it again…I want to win it for my national team, as a thank you. That would mean a lot to me – they have given a lot to me and I want to give something back.”

Battle for general classification

Millar’s performance today was of crucial importance to the Saunier Duval rider, but the stakes were also extremely high for those fighting it out for the final race victory. Alejandro Valverde finished just 13 seconds behind Millar and eight adrift of Vinokourov, underlining his strong progress in the discipline. What’s more, he had a small mechanical problem along the way, which undoubtedly cost him time.

“I had a little problem with my derailleur when going from the small to the big chainring,” he told the media. “The chain didn’t go up properly, so I had to do it with my hand.

“I am very happy with this ride today. Eight seconds to Vinokourov isn’t much, some people thought I would lose more. I am very pleased with this time trial."

Valverde has long been known as a quick, explosive rider who can sprint and climb, but who tended to suffer in races against the clock. He has however made good improvements and takes satisfaction from that fact. “I have demonstrated this year that I have progressed a lot in the time trials. I think it shows that I can fight for a Grand Tour win.

“I went very hard in this time trial but I kept a little bit in reserve early on as there were a couple of little hills after the start. When I heard the final time check [he was third, ten seconds back] I was going flat out and pushed all the way to the finish, although without taking any risks.”

“From this point, the final battle for the Vuelta will happen. I lost eight seconds to Vinokourov but I took time back from rivals such as Kashechkin, Sastre and Marchante. I think this time trial is a very good thing for me.”

Vinokourov didn’t succeed in taking back much time on the Spaniard, but told Spain’s Onda Cero radio that he was satisfied for now. “I think I did a good time trial. I gave it all and it was a good stage for me.”

Carlos Sastre lost 41 seconds to Vino and 33 to Valverde, but said he did his best. “This time trial is one that Vinokourov did very well. I am happy…I gave everything I could and when there’s no more, nothing could be done.”

Discovery Channel’s Stijn Devolder put in a huge effort during the test, and ended up going two places better than the CSC leader. He crossed the line and continued to the team car, where he hollered for water. The Belgian threw two bottles over himself, drinking some, and then slumped exhausted for a couple of minutes.

“The course is really hard,” he told Cyclingnews, once he had recovered. “I think that the riders who started in the first half of the race will have an advantage over the general classification riders, as they are fresher than us because we have been battling in the mountains. They also have an advantage because it was probably a bit cooler. Third place now [he was sixth by the end of the day] is good, but there are still a lot of riders yet to finish.”

At that point he regarded Millar’s mark of 40’54 as the time to beat. “I guess it should be quick enough,” he stated. “Maybe some guys like Valverde or other good classification riders can do better, but it is going to be difficult, for sure.”

Former race leader Janez Brajkovic finished back in 18th, 1’49 down, and said he was disappointed with his ride. “The time trial was terrible. The course isn’t a problem – if you were good, you were good, but I just couldn’t suffer enough. I obviously lost a lot of time and after two weeks of racing, it is clear that my form is going down a bit. I will just try to dig in and lose as little time from here as is possible.”

Team-mate Tom Danielson took twelfth and said it was a difficult course. “The climb was tough. When you were on the cobbles, it was hard to keep your momentum going. A little guy [like me] has to go hard on the flats and also hard on the climb, all the way along.

“I am a little over a minute off the best time. I would have liked to have been closer but we will see if I can improve in the next few days.”

How it unfolded

The first rider out of the start house Saturday morning was Cyril Lemoine (Credit Agricole), who has the worst overall time from the 158 survivors of the Vuelta. The French rider started his performance at 10.57 (local time) and completed the parcours in 43 minutes and 9 seconds.

Swiss time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara (CSC) set the best time from the first riders to complete the parcours with 40'54, best one of the first 96 riders who time trialed. Cancellara always seems to ride well in Spain; he was third in the last time trial race at the World Championships in Madrid last year.

Another great specialist like David Millar (Saunier Duval) also performed very well. Although the Scot didn't better Cancellara's time at the two intermediate points (at km 9.9 and km 20.7), he sound new energy in the closing kilometers stopped the clock at exactly the same time as Cancellara: 40 minutes and 54 seconds.

Miller and Cancellara's top positions remained unchallenged for much of the afternoon.

At 14.03 (local time) race leader Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), who was the last to do the time trial, rolled out for his run at the clock. Valverde was tenth through the first intermediate time checkpoint with 12'36; 32 seconds slower than Cancellara. He was ten seconds slower at the second checkpoint - at the summit of Alto del Castillo (km 20.7). The fans hoped to watch Valverde wins today but his second half wasn't good enough. He did his best but could only manage fourth behind both the two huge specialists and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana).

When the final times were calculated, Millar had beaten Cancellara by mere hundredths of seconds. Valverde (fourth in today's TT) gained an additional 13 seconds over his predecessor in the GC, Andrey Kashechkin (fifth today) who trails now by 48 seconds. Valverde's leadership in the general classification is more secure after the time trial as the performances of the nearest ten GC challengers all put them farther behind by the end of the stage.

Stage 15 - September 10: Montilla del Palancar-Almussafes, 182 km

Sunday's stage descends from 910-meters above sea level at Montilla del Palancar to 30-meters at Almussafes and the course includes only small hills on the way to the Mediterranean Sea. There are two intermediate sprints: in Requena (km 73.5) and in Catadau (km 163). The stage seems designed for a sprint finish and will be one of the last chances for the sprinters to put on a show

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