Greipel wins a wet, classic Vuelta stage to Liège

He may have missed out on the stage win yesterday but Columbia-HTC's André Greipel made amends with an emphatic victory in the iconic Belgian city of Liège today, although not in the manner he may have envisioned. Rather than triumph in a bunch gallop, the German won a small sprint ahead of Quick Step's Wouter Weylandts and Columbia-HTC teammates Bert Grabsch and Marcel Sieberg.

On a day befitting a trip into Belgian territory there was constant rain, the inevitable - and regular - crashes, plus the anticipated attacks from those with aspirations of a win in the final 15 kilometres. The major punctuation mark of the last three kilometres was a massive crash, the biggest of the day's spills that cleaned up overall leader Fabian Cancellara and half the peloton, although the Swiss rider maintained his advantage on general classification due to the timing of the accident.

Whilst Greg Henderson was the beneficiary of confusion in yesterday's finale, fortune smiled on Greipel today as he was one of a half-dozen riders who avoided the carnage and fought for stage honours. He demonstrated why he is one of the strongest sprinters in this year's race with a convincing sprint that followed one of the biggest crashes of the season. His Columbia-HTC train kept him out of trouble, the team's positioning vital in avoiding the mishap that ruled out many of the contenders in Liège.

Get off the brakes!

Today's break check: the five kilometre mark. The 'lucky' four who got to spend most of the 225 kilometres off the front of the peloton? Javier Ramirez Abeja (Andalucía - Cajasur), Lars Boom (Rabobank), Dominik Roels (Milram) and Sergey Lagutin (Vacansoleil). The escape held a maximum advantage in excess of 14 minutes before it was time for it to be gradually absorbed back into the peloton.

Two ascensions of the Cauberg were good for Boom who took mountains points on home turf. In the future it's likely we'll be seeing the Dutchman fighting for honours in the Amstel Gold Race on the same climb, although today's stage was all about getting to Liège with a suitable compliment of points for his efforts. He did just that and will wear the crimson climber's jersey when the race resumes on Thursday.

Back in the pack there was more bad luck for Garmin-Slipstream - this time it was Svein Tuft who joined Julian Dean on the deck in the wet conditions, the accident not seriously hindering the chances of the American squad. In front of the peloton, Lagutin and Roels came down on the approach to a roundabout; no harm done, although it guaranteed a spike in the Uzbekistan national champion's heart rate.

As the speed of the main group increased the crashes flowed - Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Cervélo TestTeam), David Lopez Garcia (Xacobeo Galicia), Daniel Martin (Garmin-Slipstream) and Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank) all came down, the latter quite awkwardly in a collision with a heavy truck trailer parked on the side of the road. The young Dane was able to continue with some help from teammate Stuart O'Grady - fortunate, given the hopes placed on the 24-year-old who has a propensity for delivering great climbing performances.

Liège, here we come!

As the break hit the Mont Theux, the gap had dwindled to just 2:35 whilst the peloton looked like it was building momentum and motivation for the task at hand - i.e. - battle the elements and the escapees to deliver the sprinters to the finish. The question remained, however: would the fast men be thwarted?

Heading into the final 35 kilometres of the stage only two men remained off the front of the peloton - Roels and Ramirez decided it was time to thrash it out away from their break companions as Boom, his day's points gathering done, opted for a soft pedal back to the bunch and possibly some work in getting Oscar Freire to the finish in prime position. Lagutin figured it was all academic at this point and followed suit, undoubtedly relishing the appeal of a rest day tomorrow.

Johnny Hoogerland tried his luck within the final 30 kilometres of the stage, although nothing came of the sortie from one of yesterday's escapees. Another breakaway rider and Hoogerland's teammate, Lieuwe Westra, also hit out and quickly gained some time off the front of the peloton. He caught Roels and Ramirez in a last-ditch attempt at gaining the upper hand over the main bunch.

As the remnants of the break made its way into the city centre of Liège, stage two winner Gerald Ciolek found himself getting up off the ground, the victim of another crash. Like those spills before his, the German was able to continue without paying too much for the misfortune. While Milram's sprinter went down the chances of the escape went in a similar direction, the Saint-Nicolas climb putting paid to the likelihood of it staying away.

This tricky climb signaled the final 15 kilometres of the 225-kilometre journey from Venlo and the starting point for the real attacks from those with Classics pedigree - the likes of Kim Kirchen and Philippe Gilbert made their presence known at the head of proceedings. It preceded a stinging foray by Lampre's Enrico Gasparotto which never really looked like sticking.

Gasparotto's capture began the machinations from Rabobank, Milram, Garmin-Slipstream, Liquigas, Columbia-HTC and Quick Step, but suddenly there was a touch of wheels and carnage at a roundabout with less than three kilometres remaining. It left just the latter two squads represented in the final two kilometres of racing while the clean up continued behind. Columbia-HTC can thank itself for missing the crash with its train ensuring Greipel would be in a position to win.

Rest days and retirements

Disappointing news for the Silence-Lotto squad, with Charly Wegelius the first rider to abandon the Vuelta. It was hoped he would be a key ally of Cadel Evans in the mountains, although two Grand Tours and a miserably wet day took their toll on the Brit. Bad luck for Astana also, as the unfortunate incident near the finish may have signaled the end of Chris Horner's race, the American wincing in pain whilst receiving treatment. Tomorrow's rest day, an early one in a Grand Tour, will undoubtedly be well received by the peloton.

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Full Results
1André Greipel (Ger) Columbia-HTC5:43:05
2Wouter Weylandt (Bel) Quick StepRow 1 - Cell 2
3Bert Grabsch (Ger) Columbia-HTCRow 2 - Cell 2
4Marcel Sieberg (Ger) Columbia-HTCRow 3 - Cell 2
5Marco Velo (Ita) Quick StepRow 4 - Cell 2
6Matteo Tosatto (Ita) Quick StepRow 5 - Cell 2
7Adam Hansen (Aus) Columbia-HTCRow 6 - Cell 2
8Jürgen Roelandts (Bel) Silence-LottoRow 7 - Cell 2
9Linus Gerdemann (Ger) MilramRow 8 - Cell 2
10Thomas Rohregger (Aut) MilramRow 9 - Cell 2
11Olivier Bonnaire (Fra) Bbox Bouygues TelecomRow 10 - Cell 2
12Jesús Rosendo (Spa) Andalucía-CajasurRow 11 - Cell 2
13Mathieu Ladagnous (Fra) Française des JeuxRow 12 - Cell 2
14Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-SlipstreamRow 13 - Cell 2
15Christian Knees (Ger) MilramRow 14 - Cell 2
16Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Lampre-NGCRow 15 - Cell 2
17Alexander Efimkin (Rus) AG2R La MondialeRow 16 - Cell 2
18Serafín Martínez (Spa) Xacobeo GaliciaRow 17 - Cell 2
19Svein Tuft (Can) Garmin-SlipstreamRow 18 - Cell 2
20Tadej Valjavec (Slo) AG2R La MondialeRow 19 - Cell 2
21Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-NGCRow 20 - Cell 2
22Michael Albasini (Swi) Columbia-HTCRow 21 - Cell 2
23Xavier Florencio (Spa) Cervélo TestTeamRow 22 - Cell 2
24Manuel Calvente (Spa) Andalucía-CajasurRow 23 - Cell 2
25Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-EuskadiRow 24 - Cell 2
26Olivier Kaisen (Bel) Silence-LottoRow 25 - Cell 2