Petacchi takes back-to-back wins

Milram's sprint man unstoppable after rest day

The rest day has proved to work wonders for Alessandro Petacchi as he has taken the two subsequent stages. The tall Italian from La Spezia, Italy, navigated his way down the finishing straight in Hellín, holding off compatriot Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital) and Byelorussian Alexandre Usov (Ag2r Prévoyance). The Milram sprinter continues to celebrate after a mentally stressful summer, and enjoyed his 19th career stage victory in the Vuelta a España.

The bustle of the opening week from the Iberian Peninsula was that Spaniard Oscar Freire was back on the top of his game. The three-time World Champion collected three stage wins before saying 'adios' before stage 10. As Freire left the Vuelta to prepare for the upcoming race for the rainbow jersey in Stuttgart, Petacchi took centre stage.

Petacchi had problems of his own over the summer. He was involved in Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) investigations, trying to save himself from charges of over-using the asthma drug Salbutamol. His flight down the finishing stretch in Algemesí during yesterday's arrival was as much a shot at CONI as toward World Champion Paolo Bettini, who finished second.

Today was one for Petacchi's record books. Very few riders have won as many stages in the Vuelta as Ale-Jet has. Leaving the site of yesterday's sprint-stomping in Algemesí, he had 18 career wins in his palmarès, and 176 kilometres later it was to be 19. Bennati, winner of the Vuelta's first stage in Vigo, fired as Zabel dropped his captain off. Weaving around Zabel's left, charging on Petacchi's right, the 26 year-old from Arezzo did not have the gas to pass in the head-to-head sprint.

Further back, on the left, Usov was looking to secure his second win of the the season and second-ever Vuelta stage. The form that allowed him to take Tour du Limousin's fourth stage in August was not enough to get him close to the Italian fast-men. He closed the day in third, over Italy's Davide Viganò (Quick.Step - Innergetic), Switzerland's Aurélien Clerc (Bouygues Telecom) and Sweden's Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas).

Sprinter Koldo Fernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was 11th on his attempt to secure a birthday win. He made his mark on the sprint scene when he won the final stage of this spring's Tirreno-Adriatico. "Of course it's complicated [to beat Petacchi]," the 26 year-old commented. "Sometimes you don't know how to succeed; when waste your energies getting behind Petacchi's wheel, but then you don't have room to pass. You never know how to try.

"I think they are indeed interested in the Vuelta. Of course, for the Italians the most important one is the Giro," Fernández continued, commenting on the Spanish riders' commitment to the Vuelta. "It's a pity, but the Spanish dedicate a lot to the Tour de France. For us, the Tour is very important, but there are riders who prepare themselves very well like Samuel Sánchez and Carlos Sastre, who are then in the top positions [at the Vuelta]."

The haul south along Spain's east coast seemed to be the perfect day for an escape to succeed, especially given that there were experienced riders Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux) in the move with Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r Prévoyance), José Ruiz (Andalucía-Cajasur) and Sébastien Minard (Cofidis).

Ruiz was shelled with 30 kilometres remaining, and with seven kilometers to go, it was only Italian 'Tin-Tin' Rebellin and Belgian Gilbert remaining. The duo had saved some energy for its freedom march. The added pressure of T-Mobile, and then Lampre-Fondital, meant that its march lasted only for another 2,000 metres.

Denis Menchov's team-mates ensured safe passage for its leader over the 176 kilometres from Algemesí. The 29 year-old Russian continues his grip on the race leaders maillot oro by over one minute to Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne) and Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto). He try to remain safe as he approaches the next big rendezvous, likely to be stage 15 to Granada.

Tomorrow will see Petacchi go for three in a row, and try to equal the successes of Freire this year's Vuelta.

How it unfolded

This was the first time that Algemesí (Valencia) hosted a Vuelta start and that Hellín (Albacete) hosted a Vuelta arrival. The last time the province of Albacete received a Vuelta finale was in 2003 when Isidro Nozal won the individual time trial in the capital city. Even though he won that day four years ago, and first in the overall classification for many days, Nozal ended second overall in Madrid.

There were two men who didn't start today in Algemesí: stage nine winner Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Egoi Martínez (Discovery Channel). Piepoli became a father yesterday, and his wife suffered complications during the birth, so he left for Monaco to be with his family. Martínez suffered a hard crash yesterday that left his arm and a wrist in pain. Therefore, there were 171 riders remaining in the race at the start.

The escape of the day was made by Rebellin, Krivtsov, Minard and Gilbert at kilometre 13. Later on, Ruiz joined the group that led by 3'32" at kilometre 25. The five leaders were not able to increase their lead much; the maximum they obtained was 3'17" at kilometre 92. The distance was too short for the small group to have a chance of winning.

The advantage was just 2'06" at kilometre 141 (34 kilometres to go). Ruiz couldn't keep the pace of his companions, and he was forced back to the peloton. Team Milram was pulling hard for Petacchi, along with help from Rabobank for overall race leader Menchov.

With 10km to go, the four in the front were just 33 seconds ahead of the peloton. However, the escape lasted more than expected. The foursome did as much as it could to reach Hellín alone. Gilbert attacked his mates with less than six kilometres. Rebellin followed him while the other two were caught by the big group. The Belgian and the Italian eventually faded.

T-Mobile led the peloton. It was stretched due to the high speeds that reached 55 kilometres per hour. Many teams were up front, and Milram was forced out of control. In the last kilometre, Lampre added its riders to help Bennati. Petacchi only had Zabel in the finishing straight, but he had managed to take control, coming from centre with around 200 meters to the finish line. Bennati followed him but Ale-Jet's top speed was too much.

Stage 13 - September 14: Hellin - Torre-Pacheco, 176.4km

The riders will leave Hellín to travel south to Torre Pacheco in the Murcia region. The 176-kilometre parcours will be just what the doctor ordered as the next day comes with a handful of mountain passes. The riders will face only the category 3 Puerto Espuña, 90 kilometres from the finish line. Any riders wishing for an escape will have to work very hard as the sprinters will be itching to put one in the back before Saturday's stage.

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