Petacchi charges to comeback win

Italian speedster takes Vuelta victory number 18 after tough summer

Alessandro Petacchi marked a return to the big time with career win number 18 in the Vuelta a España. The Italian, who was hassled over the summer in a doping-related investigation, rode the wheel of Milram team-mate Erik Zabel through the final bends in the finishing town of Algemesí. World Champion Paolo Bettini's charge fell short, as the Italian from Quick.Step was only able to finish second. Zabel kept speeds high to finish third, over André Greipel (T-Mobile) and Carlos Da Cruz (Française Des Jeux).

"I needed the win," said the exhausted 33 year-old. "After the Giro, everyone knows the problems I had. I hope these problems are over soon. It's been a long time, since I didn't race the Tour [de France]. At the beginning of this Vuelta, I found myself in bad form. I felt very exhausted in this Vuelta since the very first day. After yesterday's rest day, today I felt a bit better."

Milram shared the work with Lampre-Fondital for the majority of the day, but at eight kilometres to go, when the two-man escape was caught, it looked like Petacchi could miss out yet once again. The train of Milram was washed out by T-Mobile and Discovery Channel for a few kilometres as they muscled forward for their sprinters. However, they did not count on Petacchi's desire to achieve a big comeback.

Alberto Ongarato, Marco Velo and Zabel regained control for the start of the final two kilometres. Velo continued the infernal hammering after Ongarato pulled off. The new father (of a baby named Alessandro after his team leader - ed.) led through the hard left to set up for the final right-hand fader at 300 metres to the line. Speeds blasted the riders out of the corner and down the left side of the finishing three hundred metres.

Zabel released control at the proper moment for Ale-Jet to soar. Petacchi achieved his first win since stage one of the Regio Tour in August, and, more importantly, since his five-stage Giro d'Italia romp in May. Over the last four months he has been steadily hounded by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) for testing positive for the overuse of Salbutamol (asthma drug). Even though he left World Champ Bettini in his afterburner fumes, the Vuelta win seemed more of a win over CONI.

Zabel won only a few days ago as a result of a crash in the closing kilometres. "In Saragossa [stage 7] I felt pretty good but the crash that happened with one and a half kilometres [to the end] was terrible," remarked Petacchi. "I was in the middle of the bunch. But I was happy with the team because Zabel had won. Today, my team did a great job. From the start of the Vuelta all my team-mates wanted me to win; they worked hard all day long, and I achieved the victory."

Raul García de Mateo (Relax-GAM) was back at it again today. He joined forces with fellow Spaniard José Antonio López (Andalucía-Cajasur) at kilometre eight to form an all-day escape that yielded team publicity more than anything else. They never obtained more than six minutes, but they gave their sponsors plenty of TV time and Unipublic a 'gracias' for their team's wildcard invites.

"I tried," said the 25 year-old Relax rider. "They caught us very near the end. It is the third break that I got in. I don't have much more strength, but I'll see if I can recover over the next couple of days, and let's see if I can try again."

Overall he was happy with the day. "It's better to laugh than to cry. We can cry at home where nobody can see us. Let's see if I can laugh one day for a stage win."

Rabobank led Denis Menchov safely through the 191-kilometre stage near Valencia. The Russian holds the overall lead by over one minute to compatriot Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne) and Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto). The GC men are focusing on the difficult stages ahead and were happy to see today's stage controlled by the sprint teams.

How it unfolded

Algemesí is a little town in the province of Valencia. It is known all over Europe because of its particular 10-day bullfight week celebrated every September. The bullfights are placed not in a round pitch but in a rectangular pitch with its stands built of wood. The ground is reset every year for the famous and ancient bullfight parties.

All the 173 riders who ended up in Arcalís on Monday took the start in Oropesa del Mar today. There was a two-man breakaway that darted off at kilometre eight with López and Raul Garcìa de Mateo. The peloton allowed the break to extend its advantage to its maximum by kilometre 40.

The duo led while the main group was racing at a 'soft' pace, not letting the escape get any larger of a gap. It seemed as though the rest day was continuing for another 24 hours. By kilometre 93, López and Garcìa de Mateo had a 4'30" advantage. The peloton had total control of the stage as Lampre and Milram commanded the group that was 3'14" behind the leaders at kilometre 120.

30 kilometres later, the gap was cropped to a hair more than two minutes. The two Italian teams, together with Denis Menchov's Rabobank, were leading the chase. Finally, the duo was caught with less than nine kilometres to the line.

The finale was ridden at super-high speeds that made the peloton stretched in single-file. T-Mobile led the snake ahead of Milram with four kilometres to go. The Italians regained control with two kilometres remaining to prepare for Petacchi's final surge.

Stage 12 - September 13: Algemesí - Hellín, 176km

The stage from Algemesí to Hellín, 176 kilometres, will not feature one categorized climb and should produce a bunch sprint. The sprinters' teams may be forced to work slightly harder than normal if the cross winds kick up during the southwest run.

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