Piepoli conquers, Menchov shakes Devolder

Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Prodir) earned a well-deserved victory atop the ski station in Cerler with relentless attacks that shattered the group of favourites, leaving only Rabobank's Denis Menchov able to stay in contact. Menchov did not put up a fight for the finish, and was instead content to relinquish the stage to the Italian with the knowledge he would don the jersey oro. Previous leader Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) did not have a good day and lost contact at the lower slopes of the climb, losing nearly five minutes and his leader's jersey.

Ezequiel Mosquera Miguez (Karpin Galicia) and Carlos Sastre (CSC) came in just 17 second back, while Gerolsteiner's Oliver Zaugg was fifth 51" behind the winner. Former golden jersey Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne), had a great day to finish ninth, bringing himself back to second overall, two minutes behind Menchov in a group with many of the overall contenders, including Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Luis Perez (Andalucía-Cajasur) and Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto). Evans suffered today, but with the help of his team-mate Josep Jufré, held on to third overall, 2'27" behind Menchov.

The day's winner, who could be seen talking to Menchov with about two kilometres remaining, explained that there was no sprint at Cerler because it was "more than clear, it was logical. Menchov is here to win the Vuelta and more stages. Certainly it is more convenient for him to make friends than to make enemies. Besides, Denis is my friend. I think we are both happy."

Piepoli often does well in the mountains, but rejected suggestions he could try for the overall classification, saying, "I am already [too] old to fight for the general [classification]. I am happy with this, as it is not a small feat. Let's see if we can win again." The Italian was already looking forward to more climbing, but cautioned that he likely won't win tomorrow's stage. "It would be too much. Now I start to enjoy this victory and tomorrow we'll see," he assured that the celebrating won't get the short end.

The Saunier Duval rider also made clear that there is no problem sharing the responsibility between him and team-mate José Angel Gomez Marchante, who was very active in today's stage and part of the 13-man break that stayed away until close to the beginning of the final climb. "Certainly [Gomez] Marchante and I are here for different things. Marchante is fighting in the general and I am fighting for stages. So far, I got it and Marchante got his part."

Denis Menchov also has the overall in mind, but is in a much better position than Marchante, as the Russian is now leading the race with a comfortable 2'01" over former golden jersey Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne). Menchov was relaxed, but aware of the dangers ahead. "I am calm. I don't want to say I am the strongest because I respect my rivals and there is very much race left. This has just begun; it is just the second mountain stage and there are many stages left."

While he certainly was happy to propel himself into the lead on a nice, sunny day in the beautiful Pyrenees, he couldn't actually take in the scenery. "I can not actually enjoy it because it was a pretty hard finale, but I think me and my team in general can be very happy today. I think my performance was pretty good and the current race situation is very good for us so we'd better be happy."

Despite all the turmoil that Rabobank went through in the Tour de France, with the dismissal of Michael Rasmussen while the Dane was wearing the yellow jersey, Menchov is happy with the team and added, "I think it is fine. Today we demonstrated the team is very good."

Thanks to being part of the break once again, the hyper-active Serafín Martínez still leads the mountain classification, but Piepoli was coming close and is only eight points behind. Besides the overall battle there will also be a fierce fight for the mountain jersey.

Denis Menchov took over the lead in the combination classification, with Efimkin still n second, but Piepoli moving up to third while Devolder dropped down to fifth.

How it unfolded

181 riders took the start in Huesca as there were no abandons yesterday, and headed out for the scenic 167 kilometre route to Cerler, a ski station in the middle of the Pyrenees. The finishing climb, a hors category mountain, was first climbed in the 1987 Vuelta, and is a place reserved for great climbers. Spain's Roberto Laiseka was the last winner here in 2005.

There were many attacks right from the beginning. At the first climb in Puerto de Monrepos (kilometre 22), 13 were able to make the first steady breakaway: Stéphane Goubert (Ag2r Prévoyance), José Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval), Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Sylvester Szmyd and Morris Possoni (Lampre-Fondital), David López García and José Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne), Wim Van Huffel (Predictor-Lotto), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Christophe Kern (Crédit Agricole), Christian Vande Velde (Team CSC), Alessandro Vanotti (Liquigas) and Serafín Martínez (Karpin Galicia). The peloton wouldn't allow a break with Gomez Marchante and Antón too much time, so they kept the gap at a reasonable 1'20" after 25 kilometres of racing.

Meanwhile, Australia's Bradley McGee (Française des Jeux) quit the race. McGee did a great performance early in the 2005 Vuelta but not this year. McGee was one of the Vuelta overall leaders in 2005. This year, he was 176th among 181 riders, more than one hour behind race leader Devolder. Another one who had a hard time was Oscar Pereiro. The Spaniard didn't feel well and was behind the peloton the whole day, eventually trailing more than ten minutes. Finally, Pereiro quit at the feed zone, together with Arkaitz Duran (Saunier Duval-Prodir).

At the second climb of the day, the Alto del Serrablo at kilometre 71, the leaders had an advantage of two minutes and 20 seconds. Serafín Martínez got the most bonus points, passing the summit in first place. When going down the Serrablo, the peloton reduced the gap, which had grown during the ascent, to one minutes and 32 seconds.

Things didn't change much at the third and penultimate climb in Foradada ( kilometre 112). The leaders were able to increase their gap a little bit while Frenchman Christophe Kern couldn't keep the pace of the rest and came back to the peloton. On this climb, the peloton reduced the gap and the break was just a bit more than 30 seconds ahead, at kilometre 146, 21 kilometres from the finish. The next kilometre, Alessandro Vanotti attacked his former mates in the breakaway. He led solo with around 45 seconds over the peloton that could already see the break ahead of them. Eventually everyone but Vanotti was back in the bunch.

But the Italian's lead was not solid and he was caught right at the start of Cerler, with 11 kilometres to the top. CSC and Saunier Duval riders took control, with Carlos Sastre behind helper Iñigo Cuesta. Menchov was among the favourites in the front while Devolder couldn't keep up the very fast pace. Carlos Castaño (Karpin Galicia) attacked and got a small gap, but eventually faded. Then, with eight kilometres to go, Daniel Moreno (Relax Gam) made his move, but was also only on the front for a couple of kilometres.

In the last 6,000 metres, the top riders including Denis Menchov, Samuel Sanchez, Leonardo Piepoli and Carlos Sastre made the difference and took command. The Italian and the Russian attacked the others and started to rule the stage. Behind the duo came another couple with Sastre and Mosquera. Menchov and Piepoli were 10 seconds ahead of their two chasers with 4 kilometres to go. Both, the Rabobank and the Saunier Duval rider, maintained the advantage and crossed the finish line 16 seconds ahead of Mosquera and Sastre. The Russian let the Italian took the stage win while the Rabobank cyclist grabbed the overall leadership for the first time on a crucial day. What happened with Devolder? He finished in 42nd losing 4 minutes and 58 seconds to the new leader.

Stage 10 - September 10: Benasque - Estación de esquí de Ordino Arcalís, 214km

This is the third testing day following the first individual time trial and previous day's mountain-top finish. The riders will face a 214-kilometre parcours running from Benasque to Andorra with two category 2 climbs, one category 1 and the final beyond category climb to the finish in Arcalís. The Arcalís covers 15 kilometres, with an average 5.6% slope and sustained sections of 8.5%. The summit is at 2,200 metres altitude and should suit the pure climbers.

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