Forster salvages Gerolsteiner's Vuelta

Valverde holds on to lead on stage settled in bunch sprint

Gerolsteiner rider Robert Förster followed up his victory on the final stage of the Giro d’Italia in June with a fine sprint win on stage 15 of the Vuelta. The 28 year old timed things to perfection to gallop in ahead of Stuart O’Grady (CSC), Danilo Napolitano (Lampre) and points leader Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) at the finish at the Ford Factory in Almussafes. Alessandro Petacchi was one of those who was impeded by a slight left hand curve close to the line.

It was, along with the Giro win, the biggest result of his career. It is also a very important result for the Gerolsteiner team, who have lost over half of their squad so far. Indeed, their biggest name Davide Rebellin was one of those who chose not to start today. “This is great for the team, we targeted a stage win in the race,” Förster said after the finish. “We have lost five guys, some had problems with the heat and Fothen was not so strong since the Tour. But it has worked out well today.”

Förster’s victory comes after a tough time so far in Spain. “This year I won the last stage of the Giro. It was also a three week race, it was very hard but the last week worked out perfectly. I felt the same as here, I wasn’t in the best condition for the Vuelta and the first two weeks were so hard. In the mountains I was dropped and I had to fight back. Then yesterday I called my coach in Germany and he said I must go on until the end [of the Vuelta]. It was better today, this was my best stage. I have now taken one in the Giro and one in the Vuelta; I hope now to win a stage of the Tour at some point.”

The 182 kilometre stage saw a couple of attempts to go clear before two riders succeeded and built up a maximum advantage of 6’30. Jorge García (Relax-Gam) and Kjell Carlström (Liquigas) worked together until the latter sat up, with the Spanish rider being caught with 15 kilometres remaining. The sprinters’ teams – including the Crédit Agricole squad of Hushovd – drove things from there to ensure a bunch sprint.

“It was very dangerous,” said Förster when asked about the sprint. “In the last kilometre I was in 20th position and my team-mate Hasselbacher put me on Napolitano’s wheel. It was not the perfect wheel, we wanted to go behind Petacchi as I had noticed that Zabel had a problem with his back wheel with three or four kilometres to go. I thought that Petacchi would make the sprint and that is why we tried to get there.

“With 700 metres to go I was behind Napolitano and then he started sprinting with 300 metres to go. It was a bit far out but I started mine 150 metres before the finish line and it worked out perfectly.”

Förster was due to call an end to his season at the end of the race in Madrid but said that depending on how he felt then, he might continue to ride Franco Belge and Paris-Tours.

Race leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) had an uneventful stage as the GC contenders effectively called a truce prior to tomorrow’s rest day. He came home safely in the main bunch and preserved his 48 second lead over Astana’s Andrey Kashechkin.

“Just like these days always go, it was tranquilo at the start, but quite nervous in the finish,” he told Spanish television after the stage. “You always have to fight to keep your position. We’ve done two weeks, tomorrow’s the rest day and we’ll see how it goes in the final week.”

Carlos Sastre spoke to Onda Cero radio and said that it was a nerve-wracking stage. “I am here, alive… trying to recover myself after these stressful kilometres. We were riding a stage that seems not to be important, but could cause harm [through accident]… The breakaway came early on and it was a day when the sprinters’ teams had one of the few chances left in this Vuelta to control the race and to end in a bunch sprint. That goal was accomplished.”

The riders will this evening face a 400 kilometre transfer to their hotels in Almeria. Tomorrow is the race’s second rest day, with the Vuelta peloton resuming their battles on Tuesday with a tough mountain stage to the Observatorio Astronómico de Calar Alto. The final showdown in the 2006 Tour of Spain is on the way.

How it unfolded

Almussafes is a little town near Valencia. The town was settled during the Arab occupation of Spain. The name of the town is derived from the Arabic word Almazaf, which means the customs house. Almussafes was customs house for the goods that went to Valencia, and American motor company Ford established its Spanish plant here in 1976.

The stage started with two riders fewer than today as Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Rugero Marzzoli (Lampre) decided not to take the start line, leaving 156 riders in the race.

After seven kilometres, two riders attacked the peloton and got a gap, Jorge Garcia Marin (Relax) and Kjell Carlström (Liquigas). The peloton allowed the duo to escape, as a two-man breakaway would be easy to control for the sprinters' teams. The duo led the race by 6'30 at km 41. From that point on, however, their advantage narrowed, as the bunch didn't want to let Garcia Marin and Carlström go. Around km 90, the Finn couldn't keep up the tempo, leaving the Spaniard alone, less then five minutes ahead of the peloton.

At km 142 (40 km to go), Garcia Marin stayed in front but his chances of victory were slim; today's stage was tailor-made for the sprinters. Everyone knew Garcia Marin would eventually be caught, and that's exactly what happened with 14 km to go.

The stage was set for a bunch sprint, and in the final two kilometres, the teams of Milram and Quick.Step fought for positions; the Milram men wanted to help Alessandro Petacchi and Quick.Step wanted to see Paolo Bettini win. Lampre outfit was also there at the head of the peloton.

It was a long bunch sprint with a straight of more than a kilometre, but with a tricky chicane just before the line, and the final metres were incredibly fast and nervous. With around 150 metres to go, Claudio Corioni (Lampre) obstructed Petacchi in his bid to give his team-mate Sylvester Szmyd the victory, but it was Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) who came out with the best position and finally prevailed, followed by Stuart O'Grady (CSC) and Napolitano.

Second rest day - September 11; Stage 16 - September 12: Almería-observatorio astronomico de Calar Alto, 145 km

The riders will enjoy their second and last rest day tomorrow. But on Tuesday, they will face a short but demanding stage.

In fact, the profile of Stage 16 will be the exact opposite of today's route, which will start in Almeria by the sea and end at the special category observatorio astronomico de Calar Alto climb, 2,090 metres above sea level. Before the finish, however, two more climbs must be faced: the Alto de Velefique (Cat. 1 - 1,800 m. - km 56.3) and Alto de Calar Alto (Cat. 1 - 2,160 m. - km 88).

Maybe a good chance for the riders behind Valverde on GC to surprise him; however, Valverde has so far shown he is capable of winning on all terrain.

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