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Vuelta06: The Final Week Looms!

It’s the last rest day of the Vuelta06 giving the remaining 155 riders a chance to rest up, relax and have a siesta or two whilst preparing for the remaining 6 days. The rest day also gives us a chance to look back at the key moments of the Vuelta so far and to look ahead to the decisive stages still to come.

First off let’s look at the top 10 on GC as they stand today:

General Classification After Stage 15
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears 58.48.23
2 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana Team 0.48
3 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC 1.25
4 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana Team 1.38
5 Josй Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir 2.23
6 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 3.49
7 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears 4.29
8 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 4.48
9 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 5.03
10 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 7.15

At this point, it looks like the Kazakh duo of Kash and Vino have the best chance at getting the measure of Valverde.

Now out of those top 10 we only have five guys that can realistically win the race, Valverde, Kascheckin, Sastre, Vinokourov and Marchante. Out of those five it’s Valverde and Vinokourov who are looking the freshest with Valverde now the clear favorite after his amazing performance in the time trial. Not only has Valverde shown he is climbing well, he has also sprinted well for bonus seconds and now he has shown that all important skill of time trialling – is he unstoppable?

A superb time trial along with consistently impressive climbing has Valverde in the driver’s seat, but Kashechkin is still less than a minute back…

The Kazakh pairing of Kasheckin and Vinokourov certainly hope they can stop him – but how? With neither of the Kazakh’s a chance up against Valverde in the sprints, they must try and take their time back on either the two mountain top finishes of Stages 16 & 18 or in Stage 20’s virtually flat time trial. Now some of you may be asking, ‘But what about Stage 17’s mountain stage?’ Well, I don’t think any of Valverde’s GC rivals can do anything there, in fact that is the stage that I believe that Valverde will increase his lead.

If a break doesn’t get away on Stage 17, Valverde could be eyeing another stage win and some bonus ticks.

Yes, there are two Cat 1 climbs and a Cat 3 in the stage, but with the last mountain being crested at 20kms to go, I feel that a small, select group will be contesting the finish there – and who’s the best in the Vuelta – or even the world at those type of finishes? Take a bow Mr Valverde… 1st place in a stage gets 20s bonus, 2nd 12s and 3rd place 8s – could Valverde secure his Vuelta victory with sprint bonuses? It’s a real possibility although recent history has shown us in the Vuelta that the race often comes down to the final time trial.

If 17 will be a wash, and the final TT debatable as to the possibilities of time gains – then that leaves only Stages 16 and 18 for possible time gains for the challengers.

The Law Of The Land: The Final TT
This year’s final time trial may be a different story though as it is virtually flat (for Spain anyway) and is only 27.5kms long. Not much time for Vino, or any of Valverde’s other rivals to really do some damage. A few interesting facts in light of the short distance of the time trial:

Let’s say that Valverde does a 50kph average for the stage – that would give him a time of 33minutes for the stage. Now to take say, 3minutes out of Valverde a rider would have to average 55kph – a full 5kph faster than Valverde. Personally I don’t see any of the top GC guys going 5kph faster than another, maybe 1-2kph maximum. With that in mind any of Valverde’s rivals would have to be within a minute of his lead before going into the final time trial if they had hopes of taking the title. On my proposed example of Valverde averaging 50kph, a rider wanting to take a minute from Valverde would have to average 51.6kph, a much more realistic possibility.

Marchante has been on the attack loads, and has been rewarded with a high overall placing, but it will take some serious magic in the last week to get the win, and some very solid riding to eke onto the podium.

Marchante And Sastre: Maybe?
Two riders from the top 5 that I haven’t talked about much so far are Carlos Satre (CSC) and Jose Marchante (Saunier Duval). Watching these riders closely over the last two weeks I think they are both tired and realistically they are aiming for the podium now, not the victory. Marchante has tried hard in the mountains but has been on his limit the whole time and then he did a disappointing time trial at Cuenca losing over 1min to Valverde in the 33km test.

Sastre got a nice taste of Gold early on, but can he pull it together and get it when it counts?

Now Carlos Sastre is a different story – can I really write him off? He is looking tired, but why wouldn’t he be? No other rider here in Spain is going for the GC after completing both the Giro and the Tour. In fact riders that were at their best at the Tour in July have all crashed and burned spectacularly:

Denis Menchov (dropped on every climb, abandoned)

Michael Rasmussen (Struggling on the climbs, Currently 54th on GC 46m28s behind)

Cyril Dessel (Haven’t seen anything of him – unless you’re in the autobus that is – 97th 1hr15m40s)

Oscar Pereiro (the Tour winner has been a lowly domestique here for Valverde after struggling spectaculary in the mountains – 60th at 49m34s)

If Sastre is to take time from his rivals and actually win the Vuelta then it has to be in the mountains of Stage 16 and 18 if there is any hope. At the moment Sastre just doesn’t have the form in the time trial to make a difference there so it is in the mountains or nothing for the CSC strongman. Most likely we will see Sastre finish just off the podium again…for seemingly the fiftieth time in his career.

The Best Of The Rest
Now onto the rest of the guys in the top 20. All those outside of the top 5 have different agendas than the overall victory, some just want to go for the stage wins, some are riding to conserve their high placing, others are playing support roles and then there are the Discovery boys who will be looking for stage wins as well as trying to hold onto their lead in the teams classification.

Currently the teams classification is:
1 Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 175.53.00
2 Caisse D’Epargne – Illes Balears 10.58
3 Astana 16.59
4 Euskaltel – Euskadi 23.44
5 Lampre – Fondital 34.43

Not a bad lead for the Discovery boys but the race is a long way from being run in that competition. Discovery of course came into the race, not with aspirations for the Team’s Award, but with high GC hopes for Tom Danielson. They had to change their thinking though after Danielson’s failure in the first two mountain stages and the amazing performance of their Slovenian youngster, Janez Brajkovic.

Even though young Janez has fallen to 6th overall, there’s no mistaking: he has been the breakthrough of the Vuelta.

After wearing the leader’s jersey earlier in the Tour, Brajkovic has slipped down the order to 6th at 3m49s and is realistically out of the running to win the thing, whilst his team leader Danielson has seemingly got stronger over the last week and is now looking good again sitting just outside the top ten in 12th at 7m46s.

An improvement in the mountains coming up is possible for the American and a spot in the top ten is not unrealistic at the finish in Madrid. Brajkovic wasn’t the only surprise from Discovery though, the young Belgian Stijn Devolder has climbed better than ever and has managed to climb himself into 10th overall. The top man on GC at the moment though in Discovery is Manuel Beltran, the ever reliable Spaniard is currently in 9th and he will be looking at holding onto his top ten finish all the way to Madrid.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Another rider in the top 20 who deserves a mention is Ryder Hesjedal from Phonak. The Canadian has ridden an excellent race and he has done it all himself with virtually no team around him. Ryder has been up there in every important stage and he has even tried a couple of times to break away late in the day for a stage win, but with no luck so far. Watching this year’s race in the mountains there are Discovery and Caisse d’Epargne jerseys everywhere and then there is the one lonely Phonak jersey. In fact the next closest Phonak rider on GC is Luis Fernбndez Oliveira almost an hour behind Hesjedal!

Currently in 15th place at 9m30s, top 15 is most likely where Hesjedal will finish the Vuelta. Hesjedal will be hoping for a little more luck and a bit of leeway in the mountains from the big teams and perhaps he can score himself a stage win. Whatever the case, it’s been a great ride so far from the tall Canadian.

Thor Hushovd has been the undisputed man of the sprints at the Vuelta so far.

Sprint Fun
Onto the other competitions now and first up it’s the Sprinter’s jersey. The big God of Thunder, Thor Hushovd (Crйdit Agricole) has got this classification so sewn up that he could sprint the rest of the Vuelta on one leg ala his Stage 2 performance in the Tour de France this year. If Thor makes it to Madrid, the Sprinter’s jersey is his.

Sprint Classification Standings After 15 Stages
1 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole 169 pts
2 Francisco Josй Ventoso (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir 89
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears 89
4 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana Team 82
5 Stuart O’Grady (Aus) Team CSC 82

Uphill Joy
The mountain’s classification is still a close one though, anything could happen here. Currently Pietro Caucchioli (Credit Agricole) is in the lead, giving the French team two jerseys – but can they keep this one? Caucchioli’s main rivals are the Spanish pairing of Martinez (Discovery) and Elias (Relax), but realistically the jersey could go to anyone. A ‘Rasmussenesque’ attack alone all day in the mountains could elevate any of the top 15 into the lead.

Mountains Classification After Stage 15
1 Pietro Caucchioli (Ita) Credit Agricole 81 pts
2 Josй Miguel Elias (Spa) Relax-Gam 70
3 Egoi Martinez (Spa) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 67
4 David Arroyo (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears 53
5 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears 50
6 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC 44
7 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 40
8 Бngel Vallejo (Spa) Relax-Gam 36
9 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 33
10 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana Team 32
11 Josй Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir 32
12 Dario David Cioni (Ita) Liquigas 28
13 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana Team 27
14 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 27
15 Benoоt Joachim (Lux) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team 26

So there it is, the Vuelta 06 so far. For my money Valverde will hang on for his first ever Grand Tour win and the podium will be filled by a couple of Kazakhs. The coming days are sure to produce some fireworks though and as we know it is easy to lose minutes in the mountains. All it would take is one bad day, or just one bad mountain by Valverde and then the GC could get turned on its’ head again. As always, keep it tuned to PEZ for all the action.

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