A tale of two Alex's

Stage two for Vino as Valverde grabs race lead

Déjà vu all over again. Well, almost. The first flashback from today's action was the sight of Alejandro Valverde setting off in pursuit of Alexandre Vinokourov in the closing moments of a big mountain stage of the race. Where it differed from day seven – and where it bore a resemblance to the flatter finale of stage eight – was when Vino raced home, arms aloft, for a big, big victory.

In truth today was all about these two riders. Sure, there were many other protagonistas, especially Vinokourov's Astana teammate and compatriot Andrey Kashechkin, but ultimately, it was Alex against Alej, mano a mano, for the biggest prizes in the race.

For one, the reward was a stage victory in front of Kazakhstan's prime minister, while the other scooped the first maillot oro of his career while being cheered on by his countrymen. Already giddied by Spain's win in the basketball world championships earlier today, the crowd gave huge encouragement to Valverde on the Vuelta's queen stage.

"Of course, we tried our best today," said Vinokourov, when asked if having a very senior politician along for the ride was his motivation for a second success in as many days. "We did a big attack on the last mountain and it all worked out very well. It is very good for us, for Kazakhstan and for the prime minister. I am happy."

He and Kashechkin attacked from the fragmenting main bunch with six kilometres to go, and opened up a 23 second lead on a group containing Valverde, Carlos Sastre (CSC), Danilo di Luca (Liquigas) and José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval). The Caisse d'Epargne rider set off in pursuit some 2 kilometres from the line, prompting Vino to leave a tiring Kashechkin and race ahead for the win.

"We did our best to get the stage and the yellow jersey," the soft-spoken rider explained at the post race press conference. "Kashechkin was going for yellow but in the end Valverde was able to get it. He came after us and I couldn't take the risk of waiting around to sprint against him, so I had to attack.

"I am very happy with my form and condition. Two stages in a row is surprising for me, but I have been very motivated and gave the maximum. I am happy for the team and myself.

Valverde happy in gold

Valverde continued his evolution as a Grand Tour rider by taking second on the stage and scooping his first ever leader's jersey in the Vuelta. "I like wearing the ProTour jersey but this maillot oro is very special to me," he said. "It was a very tough day - I have done stages as hard as this in the Tour de France but today was very, very difficult day."

"When Vinokourov and Kashechkin attacked we decided to wait as Karpets was still in our group. We let him finish his work driving it at the front. When he was done Sastre attacked and then finally I went, going flat out from there until the end of the stage. I was able to drop Sastre and Di Luca, both of which had been doing work before that."

Vino lost time on the first mountain stage but ever since then he has been both aggressive and improving. Valverde says that he is clearly the one to watch. "I think Vinokourov is going very well, getting stronger each day. But Kashechkin is also very good. They are both probably the most dangerous rivals now, although we cannot forget about riders like Sastre and Marchante.

"The tactics we will adopt depend on the situation of each stage and also the strategy that the team manager decides. We will defend the yellow jersey, depending on how dangerous the breaks that go are. We will decide as we go along."

Last day in gold for Brajkovic

Valverde's graduation to gold came at the expense of Janez Brajkovic, the Slovenian who has defied all expectation thus far. Today saw the wheels come off a little, the 22 year old losing pace on the final climb and coming home 13th, 2'14 down. He told Cyclingnews afterwards that perhaps he didn't take in enough food.

"I felt very good for the whole stage and then at the end, on the final climb, my legs just went. I was totally empty. I think it was probably hunger knock – prior to that I had no problems and my legs were fine. But then suddenly they went and there was nothing I could do."

Brajkovic was supported on the final climb by Tom Danielson, Manuel Beltrán and Stijn Devolder. These waited for him, something which the young rider was very thankful for afterwards. He said that he is now going to try to recover and see what he can do in the rest of the race. He is sixth overall and a high place in the general classification is still possible.

"It has been amazing to have the jersey in what is my first major Tour," he stated. "The good thing is that tomorrow is a day off, so I will probably be able to recover a little bit more. It will take a little longer to fully recover, though. My plan is that I will keep fighting… If I can stay in top ten, I will keep fighting. Otherwise I will just try to finish the race."

Brajkovic won the world under 23 time trial title two years ago. He is hoping to go well against the clock here. "If I am going to still be able to be competitive in the mountains, for sure I am going to be able to do a good time trial. We will see, it is a short one. Other guys are going to be getting stronger and stronger in this race while I am feeling a little weaker. So it is going to be very hard."

Danielson looked to be back to normal today, following two disappointing days in the mountains earlier this week. He confirmed this to Cyclingnews and while he didn't say anything about being frustrated in relation to being asked to wait, his body language and general tone hinted that this might have been the case.

"I was stronger today than in the other mountain stages, that is for sure. I was with the first guys, but Johan asked me to wait for Janez. So that is what I had to do.

"I lost time the other day…I still don't know why that happened, but my legs are better now. Today I was sitting easy on the back of Marchante when Sastre attacked. Those guys were going across to Vino and Kashechkin, and I was there. But when your team-mate is in the yellow jersey, I guess that is what you have to do."

Team directeur Johan Bruyneel paid tribute to Danielson and the others for riding for Brajkovic. "I am happy with how the team rode – I think they showed that it is a great team, that they waited for their leader. You have to be big in a defeat, also. I am happy with what I saw.

"It looked like maybe Janez had the hunger knock, he was completely out of energy. We were going to try but it is was very likely that he would stay up there, it was going to be very tough. But I am happy with how he rode. He lost too much time for the overall now but even so, I think you are still going to be talking about him later on in this Tour of Spain."

How it unfolded

Today was the first time that a Vuelta stage finished on Alto de La Cobertoria. This climb was part of the route of previous Tours of Spain, but only as an intermediate climb before the end. Alex Zülle had a bad crash descending La Cobertoria in 1993 and lost the Vuelta, which Tony Rominger finally won.

There were 179 riders left in the race - 10 fewer than at the start in Malaga. Josep Jufre (Davitamon-Lotto) and Marco Marzano (Lampre) had abandoned yesterday.

The race started with a rapid tempo when 18 riders, including big names like defending champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Oscar Pereiro (Illes Balears), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and David Millar (Saunier Duval), attacked the peloton on the first climb (Alto de Miñide – km 4). The gap wasn’t big and the peloton caught them at km 23.

Just four kilometres later, 11 riders made another attack and got a gap. At the first intermediate sprint in San Antolin (km 29), Dario Cioni (Liquigas) crossed first followed by Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears) and Igor Anton (Euskaltel). The 11 leaders were 1’20 ahead of the big group at that point. Meanwhile, Mathieu Claude (Bouygues Telecom) and Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak) left the race.

The Puerto del Connio was the second mountain of the stage (km 50). Caucchioli reached the summit in first place with Relax-Gam's Jose Miguel Elias in second and Angel Vallejo in third. Another four riders joined the leaders at that climb, and on the descent, there were 15 riders: Igor Anton and Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Arroyo, Joan Horrach and Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), Carlos Barredo (Astana Team), Mauricio Ardila and Pieter Weening (Rabobank), José Miguel Elias and and Ángel Vallejo (Relax-Gam), Pietro Caucchioli (Credit Agricole), Lars Ytting Bak (Team CSC), Egoi Martinez (Discovery Channel), Dario David Cioni (Liquigas), and Ángel Gómez Gómez (Saunier Duval).

The third climb was the Puerto de Rañadoiro (summit at km 75) and Caucchioli again got the maximum points ahead of Elias and Vallejo. Meanwhile, Andre Greipel, Thomas Ziegler (T-Mobile) and Juan Jose Cobo (Saunier Duval) abandoned the race. Dario Cioni decided to attack the breakaway and got a little gap over the other 14 riders. At km 85, the Italian rider led by 35 seconds ahead of the group, and by around three minutes over the peloton. Cioni’s adventure was short and his chasers caught him at km 99.

The Puerto de Cerredo was the fourth climb (km 102) where Caucchioli also crossed in first with Arroyo and Elias behind. The 15 riders led by 3’30 over the peloton at km 116. The gap was reduced to 1'53 in the following kilometres and the leaders as CSC started working. Meanwhile, Iñaki Isasi (Euskaltel) left the race.

At the bottom of special category Alto de San Lorenzo (km 157), the breakaway split and just three riders were able to stay up front: Egoi Martinez, Igor Anton and David Arroyo. Behind them, the favourites attacked the peloton and produced an elite group that included Brajkovic, Valverde, Vinokourov, Kashechkin, Di Luca and Sastre among others. Wim de Vocht (Davitamon) was the next rider to abandon the Vuelta at km 164.

At the summit of Alto de San Lorenzo (km 166), the trio crossed in first place (Arroyo, Martinez and Anton in that order). At the second intermediate sprint in San Martin de Teverga (km 177.8), the three riders stayed ahead, leading by approximately one minute over a 25 man chase group. During the descent of San Lorenzo, Bernhard Kohl (T-Mobile) had a crash and had to quit. The leaders couldn’t maintain the gap and were caught by the group, where Carlos Barredo was setting a high tempo. After that, Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) attacked solo. At km 187 (20 km to go), the Italian led by 40 seconds over the chasers.

Bettini was keeping a good pace and hit the final climb in front. But once the grade steepened to 8.5%, Bettini came back as first Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre) and then Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) attacked with 6 km to go. Vino flew away with teammate Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) on his wheel, and the Astana duo started to put time into the peloton, where Vladimir Karpets was trying to limit the damage.

With 4 km to go, the chasers were Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Jose Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval). Race leader Brajkovic (Discovery) had been dropped and was already a minute behind, being paced by his teammates Stijn Devolder and Tom Danielson. His lead in the race was only slender, and he eventually finished 2'14 down.

Valverde upped the tempo alone and accelerated in pursuit of the two leaders, who were 17 seconds in front. The Spaniard showed his class and was able to make contact with Kashechkin. But Vino, who had been doing all the tempo making in front up until that point, had already jumped away to win the stage. Unlike two days ago, he was not caught in the final 100 metres, and was able to celebrate his second win in a row.

First rest day – September 4

Stage 10 – September 5: Aviles-Museo de Altamira, 199.3 km

It will be a rather flattish stage after Monday’s first rest day. The stage will be full of little hills with plenty of ups and downs and with a Cat. 3 climb at km 187.7 (260 m. above sea level). There are two intermediate sprints: Llanes (km 120.4) and Cobreces (km 179). It may be a calm day for the favourites as the rest of the peloton will try to succeed in a breakaway that ends at the finish line or a bunch sprint.

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