Success for The Cricket and the Thunder God

Stage to Bettini, maillot oro to Hushovd

As was the case eight weeks ago, Norwegian rider Thor Hushovd finds himself in a Grand Tour leader's jersey thanks to his blistering turn of speed. A storming prologue ride earned him the maillot jaune last month, while today strong placings in bonus sprints plus a close second behind Italian champion Paolo Bettini at the finish saw him leap into the race lead of the Vuelta a España.

The final sprint was a chaotic affair, with riders lined right across the road on Córdoba's Avenida República Argentina. The wide boulevard meant that it was as much about timing as position; Erik Zabel's Team Milram hit the front too soon, as did Robbie McEwen's leadout du jour Fred Rodriguez. The Australian pumped his legs and wrenched his arms, fighting to get every bit of speed out of his bike, but cracked with fifty metres to go as Hushovd moved alongside and then started pulling away. But it was Bettini who read the gallop to perfection, making his move at precisely the right time to beat the pure sprinters and nab his second ever Vuelta stage win.

"This is a very important victory for my morale," beamed a positively chirpy Italian national champion at the post-race press conference. "The world road race championships on the 24th of September is a big goal for me and so to win here boosts my motivation. It helps me to relax and head there with strong morale.

"It is a big pleasure to take this victory ahead of all the specialists who are here. I have beaten them in the past in one-on-one sprints but to do so in a big bunch finish is special. I am not a pure sprinter, I normally do better on harder stages, but today my positioning was very good and I was able to make the most of that."

'Il Grillo' Bettini said that he is fully focused on being ready for the World's in a month's time. "I will try to arrive at the world championships in top form. It is a course that I like - a very nervous one, a course like the classics. It is not guaranteed that the bunch will arrive together in the sprint, but instead everyone will have to ride hard. It could also suit riders such as Freire, Valverde or Vinokourov.

"Selecting the leader for the Italian team always tends to be a complicated process but I am hoping that I will be given that position."

New leader Thor Hushovd was pleased with how his day went, although he said he'd have exchanged Bettini's success for his own. "Today I would have preferred a stage win because I am a sprinter and the most important thing for me is to win a stage. But I am really happy to have the jersey here in the Tour of Spain," he said. "I had it in the Tour de France and now I have it in another big stage race, so I am really happy with that. Anyway, for sure I am going to have many opportunities to get a stage victory later on in this Tour of Spain."

Heading to the line it looked like it was Hushovd who was going to land the win, but he was outfoxed by the crafty Olympic champion, who edged past to repeat his success of stage 16 last year. He was surprised by this. "I did not expect that Bettini was going to win the stage. I know that sometimes he can do a good sprint, he just has to come out of a good position like what he did today. I just wanted to sit on Milram's wheel because I knew they had a strong team leadout. When Robbie went I jumped as well and we did the sprint side by side against each other. I beat him, which was good, but Bettini surprised us both when he came by in the last few metres."

Hushovd also finished second in the two intermediate sprints, collecting eight seconds in bonuses. Although a stage win was his primary goal, he confirmed that taking the maillot oro was also a target. "I was thinking to at least try to get this jersey. It is always good to lead a big race and have the leader's jersey. So that is why I tried in the intermediate sprints."

Now that he's on top of the general classification, what are his thoughts on what happened in the Tour de France when he was leading there? "At the Tour I had that problem on the first sprint stage when I had the yellow jersey [he suffered a very bad cut to the arm after a mishap in the sprint]. First of all, when I saw all the blood I was scared, but afterwards when I went to hospital and got it stitched together, it wasn't too bad. I was thinking that maybe I have bad luck with the yellow jersey because in 2004 I had it, but crashed as well. But afterwards I got it back two days later so it is just something that can happen in the sprints, especially in the Tour de France."

Final question for him: when he was heading to this Vuelta, was his main aim to win a stage, prepare for the worlds or finish in Madrid? "First of all it was to win a stage," he answered. "Now I have taken yellow so that is one small goal I have achieved. After this my goal is to get a stage win, and then after ten days I will see how I am fixed for the points classification. If I am well placed then I am going to go for that.

"For sure I am going to try to do everything to try to finish this Tour and arrive to Madrid. If I am in good condition I will certainly go to the World's. That is one big ambition in this Vuelta, to get good form for the World's as well."

Race leader Carlos Sastre looked likely to lose the maillot oro due to his lack of a finishing kick, but whatever tiny chance he had of taking a time bonus disappeared when he punctured with two clicks to go. The UCI rule governing mishaps in the final three kilometres made sure he would get the bunch time, but he had no such insurance against the finishing speed of Hushovd, who finished the day two seconds ahead of Bettini and seven up on Sastre. The Spaniard won't be too worried, though, as he knows that the mountains are where his efforts will count.

"I had a puncture with two and a half kilometres to go, he told Spain's radio Cadena SER after the stage. "So, as might be expected, I arrived behind the peloton. There weren't any other problems."

"Today the team did what we planned to do. We will have three more steady stages and then we will start in the mountains."

He also commented on the early start. "It was strange," he said. "We finished yesterday a bit late and we woke up today very early. But when you end early you have the afternoon and the whole evening to recover yourself, to have massage, to stay calm. For us that is much better".

As for McEwen, he said before the start that he was targeting at least one stage win in the race but eased back when he knew today would not be the day. As a result of that, Luca Paolini (Liquigas) was third over the line while the Australian took fourth, one place ahead of Uros Murn (Phonak). However tomorrow's 219 kilometre northwestward trek to Almendralejo is another mainly flat affair and so the sprinters who missed out today could well have another shot at Vuelta glory. That's presuming another surprise isn't in store; lightning never strikes twice, but could the Cricket?

How it unfolded

Cordoba is a city in Northern Andalusia that has been heavily influenced by Arabian culture, like other Andalusian cities such as Granada or Seville, due to the long Arab occupation centuries ago. Cordoba's famous mosque is known worldwide. Italy's Leonardo Bertagnolli won in the last year's Vuelta in Cordoba, then being the fourth Italian to do so in seven finishes here.

The 189 riders who finished stage 1 yesterday in Malaga took the start today at the city of Pablo Picasso. s Raul Garcia De Mateo Rubio (Relax-GAM) was the first rider to attack, and when he was brought back after 3 km, his teammate Mario De Sárraga made the move that stuck. He was briefly joined by Saunier Duval's David De La Fuente, who had mechanical problems and had to drop back.

On the first climb of the day (Alto de Casabermeja, Cat. 3, 530 m above sea level, km 20.5), the Relax rider had a 6'50 lead. On the second climb (Alto de las Pedrizas, Cat. 3, 780 m, km 29.5), De Sárraga extended his gap to around 10 minutes to the peloton at that point, and got the mountain jersey after passing both climbs in first place. Mario De Sárraga continued his solo attack and increased the difference as he led by 13'05 at km 65. That prompted some teams like Milram to start to pick up the pace in order to catch the lone rider.

The Relax rider resisted the efforts of the bunch, but the odds were now against him as a lone rider, and his lead dropped to 10'19 at km 78. However, he had a long way to go to get home. At km 96, the peloton had cut a couple of minutes and the difference was 8'24. At the first intermediate sprint of the day (Monturque – km 109) the peloton had cropped the gap back to 7'07. Meanwhile, Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas) were second and third respectively at that point, picking up 4 and 2 bonus seconds for their efforts.

The bunch decided to go breakaway and reduced the lead to 5'50 at km 115. The big group was getting closer and 16 km later, it was just 3'03. De Sárraga's time as solo leader was about to end. At the second and last intermediate sprint (Fernan Nuñez – 38 km to go), the rider in red was just 2'04 ahead of the peloton with Hushovd and Bäckstedt again second and third.

With 34 km to go, other two riders, Benoît Joachim (Discovery Channel) and Thierry Marichal (Cofidis) joined the lone leader. It didn't take long for Joachim and Marichal to leave the tired De Sárraga behind, but they themselves were only ahead by 50 seconds. The pair was easily caught by the peloton with 13 kilometres to go, and the bunch sprint was set.

Credit Agricole with Thor Hushovd and Davitamon Lotto with Robbie McEwen were ready for the final kick, while Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) preferred to sit it out, but Milram still had three men for Erik Zabel in the final kilometre and a half. But Zabel didn't get a chance, as Davitamon's Fred Rodriguez anticipated the sprint with 400m to go, with captain McEwen on his wheel. Unfortunately for McEwen, he was left on his own too early, and ran out of legs in the last 50 metres to see Bettini, Hushovd and Paolini pass him in that order.

It was a great sprint by Bettini against the specialists, and Hushovd's second place was enough to put him in gold.

Stage 3 – August 28: Cordoba-Almendralejo, 219km

The Vuelta a España will arrive in Almendralejo, Extremadura tomorrow after many years. It is a pretty flat stage with just two category 3 climbs, both at the very beginning: Alto de Villaviciosa (550 m. above sea level, km 6) and Puerto del Aire (750 m., km 30). It's a non-decisive stage, and the sprinters should reign again. The climbs are small, and the sprinters teams fresh, so a result similar to today can be expected.

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