Samuel Sánchez takes two

'Samu' leads Alto de Abantos battle while Evans fights to maintain podium position

Samuel Sánchez capped off excellent Euskaltel-Euskadi teamwork to win stage 19 of the Vuelta a España. The 29 year-old Spaniard, winner of stage 15, out-sprinted Daniel Moreno (Relax-GAM) on the top of the Alto de Abantos to take his second stage win. Maillot oro Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) passed through for third and fourth.

Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) showed a vast amount of experience as he struggled to maintain his classification position. The Aussie couldn't hold the wheels of the lead group, and lost 1'22 to an aggressive Carlos Sastre, and slipped from second to third overall, but limited his losses enough to hold his podium spot.

Sánchez now sits in fourth, just nine seconds behind Evans. "Here, when Roberto Laiseka won the first important stage of the team in a Grand Tour I was at home watching it. I was an amateur rider, I was 21 years old, and I watched him winning here," recalled Sánchez. "And look, eight years later I won here. It was a great joy but those nine seconds weren't enough to reach the podium in Madrid on Sunday.

"I must share honours today. For my team-mates, for me and also for CSC. I worked with Carlos in order to break the race. He wanted to win the Vuelta, and I wanted to better my position in the general [classification]. Each one looked out for his own interests. We tried to get rid of Denis [Menchov] and his team, but we were conscious he was superior. ... We tried at our best."

"Our team plan was to win with Igor Antón," he continued. "If he had come from behind, he would have won the stage. Daniel Moreno was bad company because he is a fast rider. Igor is a 24 year-old rider and has a bright future. We can't ask Igor for more."

The steep gradients at the base of the Abantos saw the race explode and Euskaltel capitalize on the riders it had positioned in the front group. Euskaltel-Euskadi's Alan Pérez and Iñaki Flores had been in the lead for much of the day, with Igor Antón joining later. Antón dropped back as the cobbles kicked in at the foot of Abantos, and 'Samu' made his surge from the group of classification favourites.

Antón helped Sánchez drive the pace, and join the weakening lead duo of David López García (Caisse d'Epargne) and Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre-Fondital). Antón dropped off as Sastre was forced to chase down the Sánchez to preserve his spot in the general classification. Sastre started the day 3'02", third behind race leader Menchov, while Evans started 2'27" behind, in second, and Sánchez 4'01", in fourth.

Evans was blown out the back door as Sastre made chase with Menchov on his wheel, and the Australian was immediately put on the defence to protect his second overall and, later, third overall. Evans, in an all-white (and dirty) kit of the combination classification, chased with Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne), Carlos Barredo (Quick.Step - Innergetic) and Ezequiel Mosquera (Karpin-Galicia) in tow.

Evans pulled out every bit of experience he had in order to keep a manageable gap on the eve of tomorrow's time trial. Eventually, 'EZ' Mosquera came though and helped. The time loss for the 30 year-old Australian who finished second in the Tour de France was 1'25", and he is now 47 behind Sastre and nine seconds in front of Sánchez.

Euskaltel will pop a few bottles of Champagne tonight to celebrate its coup. The move garnered the team its second stage win in the Vuelta, both coming courteous of Sánchez. The first was a downhill blast in to Granada ahead of Manuel Beltrán (Liquigas), and the second, the grimy uphill push to Abantos.

Tomorrow, Sánchez will need load of luck to close the nine seconds to Evans, and an eventual podium spot in Madrid. He should be able to easily hold his fourth overall from Mosquera, who is 1'25" back. However, the Spaniard has more than proved that he has the legs to lead Team Spain in the World Championships, next Sunday in Stuttgart.

"I was going with Sastre at full strength, doing pulls with him at our best, trying to make the biggest time gaps," added Sánchez. "In the end, it wasn't enough. Let's see if he [Evans] doesn't have a good day, and I have a day like last year in Rivas Vaciamadrid, and I am able to gain those nine seconds left to stand in the podium. It would be a dream for me and a historical feat for the team."

Sastre will have an uncomfortable night; the Spaniard holds second but only by 47 seconds. Evans is a better time trialist, but the parcours is short, 20 kilometres. Tomorrow will be more of a fight for second than it will be for the jersey oro, which, barring any sort of freak accident, Russian Menchov should take home.

"If you don't try, things won't fall down from the sky," summarized Sastre. "I arrived at this race willing to fight; I also came here to enjoy it. So far, I am very happy because I could do both things.

"I knew Menchov was very difficult [to defeat] but I had to try it. From the start, my team and I tried to break the race in order not to have a calm start. On the last climb I did not have strength. The gradients, with rain and added pave makes your bike slip so much. When Samuel started I saw I had to go faster no matter what. I knew Denis was behind my wheel, and he showed he is strongest rider in this tour."

How it unfolded

Abantos is a mountain that the organization has used only four times; all of them in recent years. At the foot of its south hillside is the famous town San Lorenzo de El Escorial, known for its beautiful monastery. The last time Abantos was ridden, 2003, Roberto Heras won a memorable uphill time trial, stealing the maillot jersey to Isidro Nozal.

Andrea Tonti (Quick.Step - Innergetic) and Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) didn't take the start in Ávila. The Belgian became the overall after winning the long time trial in Saragossa. He wore the leader jersey just for one stage. The survivors to start the stage, with three days left, counted 146.

The first steady breakaway was made by Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick.Step - Innergetic), Marcus Ljungqvist (CSC), Manuel Váquez (Andalucía-Cajasur), José Luis Arrieta (Ag2r Prévoyance), Imanol Erviti (Caisse d'Epargne), Marco Marzano (Lampre-Fondital), Alan Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) at kilometre 26. They were chased by David López García (Caisse d'Epargne), Ángel Vallejo (Relax-GAM), Javier Mejías (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Karsten Kroon (CSC), Joost Posthuma (Rabobank), Sébastien Minard (Cofidis), Iñaki Flores (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Alessandro Vanotti (Liquigas). Both groups joined each other at kilometre 40 when the 17 riders led by two minutes and 17 seconds over the peloton.

The race changed a lot on the first ascent of Abantos. Vanotti took the lead, and passed at the summit in first place (kilometre 83). David López García chased the Italian, and was 23 seconds behind while Isasi, Alan Pérez, Arrieta, José Luis Rubiera (Discovery Channel) and Ludovic Turpin (Ag2r Prévoyance) were 55 seconds slower than Vanotti. Meanwhile, Carlos Sastre (CSC) attacked the peloton, trying to get rid of Menchov. The favourites were 2'29" behind Vanotti over the top.

Later on, there were three groups leading on the wet roads: Vanotti together with David López García, who caught the Liquigas rider; Isasi, Alan Pérez, Arrieta, Rubiera and Turpin chased the duo 30 seconds slower, while Sastre and Menchov were together with Cadel Evans, Samuel Sánchez and others at 1'32" behind (kilometre 98).

Two kilometres later (kilometre 100), the leaders were seven: Vanotti, Lopez, Pérez, Arrieta, Rubiera, Isasi and Turpin.

On the penultimate climb of Robledondo, the favourites were nearing. At the summit (kilometre 107.2 - 25.8 kilometres to go), the seven leaders rode just 1'07" ahead of Menchov, Sastre and company.

Lopez, Vanotti, Rubiera and Turpin led while the Euskaltel riders went back to help Antón and Sánchez with around 15 kilometres to go. They commanded the start of Abantos (13 kilometres to go). Up the road, David López García had attacked the lead group, and led solo with 10 kilometres remaining. Behind him, Samuel Sánchez got rid of Menchov and Sastre.

Poland's Sylvester Szmyd joined Lopez in the up front with eight kilometres to go. They had a hard time because Sastre was coming with Menchov glued to his wheel. A foursome (Sastre, Menchov, Sánchez and surprisingly Daniel Moreno) took the leadership with three kilometres to the finish line. Meanwhile, Evans was having a tough time. The Australian was racing with a small group that was 1'08" slower with 2,000 metres remaining.

Finally, the quartet arrived together in the last metres. Samuel Sánchez proved he is good sprinting, and crossed the finish line in first place; Moreno was second while Menchov and Sastre arrived third and fourth, respectively. Evans made the last effort and arrived 15th, one minute and 25 seconds behind.

Stage 20 - September 22: Villalba-Villalba (ITT), 20km

The dead-flat power-test starting and finishing in Collado Villalba should be a chance for a TT man to display his legs while it is not likely to change the GC dramatically due to its distance of 20 kilometres. However, it is the last day before the parade stage in Madrid and any time differences could be significant in determining the final podium.

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