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Zabel wins a crash-marred finish

The Grand Old Man of German cycling can still do it--Erik Zabel (Team Milram) won the sprint in the seventh stage of the Vuelta a España ahead of Allan Davis (Discovery Channel) and Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic). It wasn't a mass sprint though, as a crash about two kilometres before the finish blocked the way for all but about 12 riders. There were no changes in the overall classification.

"Petacchi was the only one of us involved in the crash two kilometres before the finish, fortunately," the 37-year-old Zabel said. "There were five riders in front, including Marco Velo, who of course waited for us. Then Alberto Ongarato closed the gap, so I could move all the way up and take the sprint."

The stage was marked by an escape of two riders from two Spanish non-ProTour teams. Raul Garcia de Mateo (Relax-Gam) and Jesus Rosendo Prado (Andalucia-Caja Sur) got away shortly after the race's flying start. They build up a lead of over nine minutes.

With 30 kilometres to go, the day's first mass crash slowed the peloton's chase. Bert Roesems (Predictor-Lotto) had to be taken off in an ambulance due to a hip injury.

The onrushing peloton gobbled up the two escapees about seven kilometres before the finish, and the sprinters' teams moved to the front to set things up for their fast men. But a combination of the curving road and the heavy winds caused another mass crash with two kilometres to go, which totally blocked the road. Those behind the crash included such big names as Alessandro Petacchi, Daniele Bennati and triple stage winner Oscar Freire. They were stuck and unable to play a part in the day's outcome.

Tomorrow's time trial runs 52.2 kilometres from Denominación de Origen Cariñena to Saragossa. It is downhill all the way, dropping from 560 metres to 210 metres. The exceptionally long time trial is expected to bring another major shake-up in the overall standings.

How it unfolded

The first settlement where Saragossa currently is situated was supposed to be in 24 B.C. In the VIIIth century, the city became a Muslim centre called Medina Albaida Sarakosta. In 1118, the city was retaken by Christians and designated the capital of the Aragon kingdom.

After only three kilometres, two riders, Raul Garcia de Mateo (Relax Gam) and Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia Caja Sur), got rid of the big bunch. The peloton allowed the two-man break to proceed after figuring they could be easily caught at the end. Garcia de Mateo and Rosendo increased their advantage to a maximum of eight minutes, at kilometre 49. In the first intermediate sprint in Cervera del Rio Alhama, at kilometre 55, the leaders were nine minutes and 17 seconds ahead of the peloton. That was the largest gap the duo could accomplish for the day. Again today, it was Milram and Lampre were the most active teams in steadily reducing the gap.

Later on, Alberto Fernandez de la Puebla (Saunier Duval-Prodir) abandoned the race. The Spaniard suffered a crash in Luarca, in stage 3, that forced him to get stitches in his chin. Additionally, he had problems in some of his teeth. He started the race, but the pain was too much and he quit the Tour of Spain today. On the category 3 Puerto de Lanzas Agudas (at kilometre 103), the gap to the two front riders was six minutes and 50 seconds.

There was a massive crash at kilometre 145, 31 kilometres from the finish. Many riders fell to the ground and the one who suffered the most was Bert Roesems (Predictor-Lotto), who took a hard hit to his hip. He quit the race in the ambulance. The rest of the crash victims were able to carry on.

The duo knew their adventure would end. The peloton swallowed them with less than seven kilometres to go after a 167-kilometre breakaway. Then, the Milram team took command of the race as usual. Alessandro Petacchi had won in Saragossa before, while Erik Zabel was a second choice for this outfit. In contrast, Oscar Freire (Rabobank) decided not to fight for the front positions in order to contest the bunch sprint as he tried to avoid crashes.

The peloton's pace was fast with 70-km/h peaks. Lampre, T-Mobile and Quick.Step-Innergetic also wanted to win here. In the last two kilometres, there was another massive crash. This cut didn't involve the top sprinters who had started the bunch sprint. Allan Davis (Discovery Channel) led the final sprint into the centre but Zabel's last effort coming from the far left was good enough to give the experienced German the stage win over the Australian. World champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step-Innergetic) arrived in third place.

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