Thunder strikes on cloudless day in Léon

Norwegian gets his stage win

If at first you don't succeed... After three second places, Thor Hushovd finally translated his considerable finishing speed into a fine victory on stage 6 of the Vuelta today, thundering in ahead of T-Mobile's André Greipel plus the Milram pairing of Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi. The giant Norwegian solidified his lead on the points classification with the victory, which adds to two wins in the Tour de France earlier this season, as well as successes in Gent-Wevelgem plus stages of Tirreno Adriatico, the Tour of Catalunya and the Dauphine Libéré.

"I felt good today and was able to win the sprint," the 28 year old Credit Agricole rider stated afterwards. "When I had the jersey it was perhaps a little more difficult because I had to ride to defend that jersey and doing the intermediate sprints probably slows you a little for the final one. I was very, very motivated to win a stage here.

"I was able to use the Milram train to get ready for the sprint. I wasn't sure if Petacchi or Zabel was going to be their man for today. Petacchi went with about 200 metres to go but I took the wheel of the T-Mobile rider [Greipel], who did a very good sprint, and I was able to come by for the victory."

Hushovd has now won a stage, worn yellow and also holds the points jersey. Despite that, he said he is still hungry to do more. "It is true that I have already achieved my goals in this Vuelta and I can be happy. But I want to win more stages and that will be my goal on every day where there is a sprint."

After today's kamikaze move du jour by French rider Mathieu Claude (Bouygues) was caught with just over 20 kilometres to go, the sprinters teams controlled things until the finish, with Liquigas, Milram and Saunier Duval doing most of the driving. David Millar showed his impressive Vuelta form with a massive turn just before the gallop started, but things didn't work out in the end for his team-mate Francisco José Ventoso, who placed tenth.

Zabel was once again right in the thick of things, but had to be content with third. "Today the team have done more good work," he said. "I was on the wheel of Petacchi with 250 metres to go and when he started, he was very fast. I preferred not to take his wheel in order not to help our rivals. I had gone on the left when Greipel and Hushovd started and I did the sprint behind them".

Petacchi's fourth place showed that he is on his way back after injury: "Today I worked for Zabel's sprint. I went with 220 metres to go because I thought I had Zabel behind me. After that I tried to continue on to the finish line as a test. I'm happy, but I am still lacking a lot of power. I hope to finish this Vuelta and to win a stage before the end."

There was no real change in the overall standings, with race leader Danilo di Luca coming home alongside all of the GC contenders. A small split in the peloton saw them lose five seconds to the first 34 riders, this latter number including Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), but the latter remains a not-insignificant 2'27 down. The next big test for the Italian is tomorrow's summit finish to the Alto de el Morredero.

The Caisse d'Epargne team have Alessandro Valverde in sixth place overall and their directeur sportif Eusebio Unzue is hoping for a good performance there. "It will be a second test for all the candidates for the overall win. But because the Morredero will be the only difficulty of the day I don't think that there will be big differences on the finishing line. It will however be very important to remain attentive in the first part of the stage because the wind could play an important role.

"I hope that Alejandro Valverde will be as good as he was yesterday in the stage of La Covatilla, and that, why not, he will even claim the stage victory."

Valverde's challenge will be backed by Xabier Zandio, who was one of today's early animators. "I am feeling very well", said the rider from Navarra. "Tomorrow I will try to stay as long as possible at Alejandro's side to help him as best I can. In the Covatilla I was disappointed with my performance. I can explain that by the fact that I took part in no races after the Tour de France. I notice that lack of competition in my legs but I am feeling better every day and I hope that tomorrow will confirm that fact."

Heat eases off

Tomorrow's stage is once again expected to be run under cloudless skies. The heat has been a big factor in this race, but it was slightly cooler today. This may have helped Hushovd, who said this afternoon that high temperatures make things more difficult for his Norwegian frame.

"The heat is the biggest problem for me. I suffer a lot in the sun. But this year I spent time in Australia which has the same heat as here. As well as that, I did the Tour de France and that was very, very hot. So I am maybe getting used to it. It can be a big problem for me, though."

Chris Horner said after the stage that things are changing and that it has been less of an inferno as the Vuelta heads north. "It's night and day, comparing today with the other stages," he said. "I mean, it is hot out there but it is nothing like what it was."

The Davitamon Lotto rider said that nobody really wants to race as yet. "Today was the same as the first three days, really. It was pretty boring the whole time. Of course, the finish was fast but these guys really just don't want to race. There is always a few out there but they just let the one or two go and go easy most of the day."

Discovery Channel's Michael Barry was on the podium today as part of the best team, and he also echoed Horner's comments. "The Vuelta has definitely been slower than it has been in past years," he said. "Part of that is due to the heat and also because there are fewer continental teams competing here now, so there aren't so many teams hoping to get into early breakaways. The racing is a little more controlled as a result. And with some big mountain stages coming up, all the teams with riders going for the overall are saving their energy for now."

That should start change tomorrow. As Unzue says, the race to Alto de el Morredero has just one climb but it will be another eyeballs-out effort to the top, and should provide further insights into the real contenders for the overall title.

How it unfolded

Leon is a city with a long history. The first settlement in the area of the town was apparently in 74 AD as Roman Legion VII was based there. The current city cathedral started to be built in the 13th century in the French gothic style, and it is one of the oldest Spanish cathedrals.

There were five riders who didn't start today: Charles Wegelius (Liquigas) and Miguel Martin Perdiguero (Phonak) who abandoned the race during last stage. Also Freddy Bichot (Française des Jeux), Christophe Detilloux (Française des Jeux) and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon) who finished outside the time limit yesterday.

The stage started with attacks by Walter Beneteau (Bouygues Telecom), who tried a couple of times to get clear. But at km 10, it was his teammate Mathieu Claude who got the right gap. The distance between the lone breakaway and the main group grew as the French rider led by 5'47 at km 25 and 8'45 at km 32. At the first intermediate sprint (km 34), Claude was first and led by more than ten minutes over the peloton. Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval) was second and Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) third there.

The stage was rather calm and without much emotion. Volodymyr Dyudya (Milram) quit the race at km 66, leaving 182 riders still in the Vuelta. Claude led solo by 9'53 at km 95 but the peloton had the situation well under control. It's highly unlikely that a single rider can finish off his performance by claiming first in a flat this stage like this, but it does happen. Around km 100, the sprinters' teams began to work and start reducing the gap that was around eight and a half minutes at that point.

The main group was getting near and it was chasing Mathieu Claude at 6'40 at km 114. The distance was gradually getting smaller and smaller and at km 130 it was only 3'22. Claude's adventure was about to end. Finally, with 21 km to go, the peloton swallowed the one-rider breakaway, just before the second and final intermediate sprint in Mansilla de las Mulas. Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval), Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) and David Millar (Saunier Duval) were the first three riders there, as Hushovd did not contest it.

The peloton had everything under control and was ready for the bunch sprint. The tempo was super fast - 90 km/h on the downhill run into Léon - and the Milram men wanted to help Erik Zabel win again in the Vuelta. T-Mobile, Française des Jeux and Lampre tried to put their sprinters up front, as Milram looked to have the perfect lead out train going in the last 2 km. Then David Millar (Saunier Duval) spoiled the party by doing a massive turn inside the final kilometre and a half for his sprinter Ventoso. When Millar pulled off at 600m to go, the Velo jumped with Petacchi and Zabel on his wheel. Petacchi hit out on the right at less than 250m to go, but Zabel chose the wheel of Greipel, who surged up the centre with Hushovd in tow. Eventually, Hushovd came around the Germans to win the stage, with Greipel second and Zabel and Petacchi third and fourth respectively.

Stage 7 – September 1: Leon-Alto de El Morredero, 154.2 km

A flattish stage with an uphill finish. There is only one climb at the end of the race: Alto de El Morredero (Cat. 1 – 1,750 m. above sea level) and there are two intermediate sprints: Toreno (660 m. – km 101) and Ponferrada (530 m. – km 124.7). It should be a day for a climber to shine in the last part of the day.

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