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Vuelta’07: Rest Day Wrap!

10 days of La Vuelta in the books and we’re in for our first pit stop. 11 days still remain, but there are only a couple of big days remaining – one mountaintop finish, one late mountain, and a 20k TT. The Vuelta overall could well be close to set as we sit here and look at how it all went down over the last week and a half.

It has been a long, hard run to the first rest day of this year’s Vuelta, but the side effect of a hard, long run to a pause is a likely paring down at the top, and that we have seen, and seen clearly.

Denis Menchov sits atop the overall classification in a position of unquestioned command. His lead isn’t awfully big, but that almost doesn’t seem important. He has time trialled better than his GC rivals, climbed with all of them, and even outsprinted them when it came to a small group at the top of Arcalis yesterday. He looks fantastic and poised to take Vuelta win #2.

Even more helpful for Menchov? By my count, there are only three more real days of GC combat to come. Stage 15 is almost identical to the epic of last year’s which saw Vinokourov escape over the top of the final climb, bridge up to Danielson on the descent, and take the overall lead by the finish. It was a thrilling finale last year, and should offer up some fireworks this year as well…hopefully…otherwise it’s just a controlled middle mountain stage with a tough climb toward the end.

After that, Stages 19 and 20 are the only other speed bumps on the way back to Madrid. Stage 19 is a climbfest to the extreme with innumerable climbs (well, six) starting immediately and ending only 133 km later. The finish is on a 12k, 6% climb. It’s a big chance – the last chance really for anyone hoping to make a move.

Then there’s only the pan flat 20k penultimate stage TT.

That is all.

Stage 1
No prologue, no TTT, just a plain ol simple bunch sprint in the opening town of Vigo in the northwest of Spain. Daniele Bennati got himself a good run and took the first day over a lot of fresh, hot sprinters. He also took the first leader’s jersey – yet another honor to go along with what has been an astounding season for the Italian.

Stage 2
Two stages down, two bunch sprints. This one went over to everybody’s favorite enigmatic sprinter: Oscar Freire. Most times you have a better chance of an injured or ailing Freire than you do, uh, a healthy one. Seriously, one of the biggest stories of this Vuelta has to be the return of a healthy, what appears to be 100% Oscar Freire. Stage 2 was the first time for the field to get a flavor of a full capacity Oscarito. They’d get a lot more of him in the coming week.

Stage 3
First though, there was another littly guy that needed to get his stage win, Paolo Bettini. Il Grillo contested most every sprint of the opening segment of the Vuelta – he even slotted himself into a number of breaks as well. Bettini only has two wins in 2007 – stage of the Tour of California and now a stage of the Vuelta, but he looks to be coming on to form at a most appropriate time.

The stage was not without its controversy though. As is typical with Paolo Bettini, there was a little diving and swerving, and according to race leader, Freire, it was enough to ruin his chances at the stage.

Stage 4
It didn’t take long for the race to get down to GC business, and boy did it with the mountaintop finish on the especial category climb of the Lagos De Covadonga. A large 30+ man break went early in the day and made it all the way to the final climb where a few climb-happy souls managed to stick it to the line or at least close to it: two of which we still see high on GC.

Three riders managed to hold on to high finishes on the cruel slopes of the Covadonga: Vladimir Efimkin, Stijn Devolder, and Maxime Montfort. Efimkin not only held on, he took the stage, the overall, and a healthy lead of a minute plus. Devolder and Montfort were caught late and finished with the small group of favorites, which was oh so small.

Out of the main field, the big names that came with game were Denis Menchov, Leonardo Piepoli, and Carlos Sastre. Cadel Evans rode a typical climb – dangling on the back of the group or just off of it most of the way up. Still, it was a good showing from the Tour’s 2nd place getter.

After the first really decisive day, it was Efimkin as the big surprise and the big question mark, followed by the leaders that showed they had the goods: Menchov, Sastre, then Piepoli (but not too much, as we know he’ll lose days in the TT), then still clinging close, Cadel Evans. Stijn Devolder did a great ride and put himself in position for the coming days as well.

Stage 5
Another bunch sprint, another win for Oscar Freire. He was out of the Maillot Oro after yesterday’s ascension to the stars, but the crimson red jersey of points leader looked just as good on the rejuvenated Spaniard’s shoulders as he romped to stage #2.

Stage 6
Stage Six saw another early break and another sprint. The early break was only notable in that it had our man Maggy in it.

Other than that, it went the way of the typical break…decent gap for a long while, followed by a concerted chase, capped with a catch, and topped off with a mighty bunch sprint…

Won by none other than Oscar Freire…that’s #3!

Stage 7
Another fast stage led to the predicted bunch sprint, except this one was a bit of a change for our Vuelta heroes. Crashes made the big news of the day – one with about an hour to go took out our other PEZ-fave, Bert Roesems, and then there was the quizzical one inside the grand finale which saw some of the big names taken out and a small group of the big sprinters off the front with 1k to go without any idea of exactly what to do.

In the end they realized it was in their best interest to sprint, but there was an almost comical moment of indecision immediately before the sprint, which I’ll be chuckling over for a long time to come.

Even the sprint was a bit of an odd one – Allan Davis appeared to take the win on the line over Erik Zabel. I say that only because he sat up and through up his victory salute. Seconds later the replay showed a clear win to Erik Zabel. Ah well, never forget to practice that victory salute, you never know when you might not need it.

Stage 8
German National TT Champion, Bert Grabsch, helped Milram to their second stage win of the Vuelta with a fantastic time trial: he nearly pulled off a 55 kph average! It was a FAST one indeed.

Behind Grabsch, the GC contenders were fighting to either gain time or hopefully not lose too much of it. Some fared better than others – the best to come out of it was none other than Disco’s Stijn Devolder. Devolder placed 3rd on the day and got himself the overall lead with his great rider.

Ominously, Denis Menchov was only a little bit behind Devolder…seemingly just waiting. Cadel Evans was the next of the GC hopes, but he was a full minute off of Menchov. Sastre was almost three in arrears of Menchov – Piepoli about SIX off of Menchov’s pace.

If you thought that was a good display of force from Devolder and Menchov, just wait for Stage 9…

Stage 9
Because Devolder lost every bit of anything that he gained in Stage 8 (and then some), whilst Menchov turned around and added to his gains – gains which saw him into the Golden Fleece by the end of the day.

Piepoli rode a torrid ascent of the Cerler, leaving all comers in his wake, save for Menchov. Two other riders managed to stay within a breath or two: always there Sastre and the eyebrow raising Karpin rider, Ezequiel Mosquera – both at 17 seconds.

After that, the rest of the favorites were over a minute back behind Menchov and Piepoli. Devolder was over FIVE minutes in arrears. The GC was really beginning to take shape now – and it would get its final touches for the first part of La Vuelta in Stage 10.

Stage 10
The tough final day before today’s rest saw over 200k in the Pyrenees finishing with the long, interminably tough ascent of Arcalis. Yeah, the one that Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France on once…as well as the Vuelta a few year’s later.

The climb wasn’t quite that decisive this time around, as a group of eight managed to come to the line together, but it was the finish that once again underlined who the top dog is right now: Denis Menchov. Menchov took the sprint, the bonus points, and another dose of momentum heading into a definitely easier second half of the Vuelta. Carlos Sastre showed again his aggressive streak with a number of attacks, but there was nothing doing, as it appeared that Piepoli at the very least wasn’t working against Menchov, and more probably was helping Menchov keep things together. But why not right? Menchov gave Piepoli the stage the day before, the least Leo could do was set some tempo up a long climb, right?

Our Man Alastair Hamilton’s Comments
The big story seems to be the collaboration between Menchov and Piepoli, they were in the same team together, i banesto.com, for three years and are friends. this is the line taken by Spanish daily paper El Pais who’s headline is “Friends forever”, but the cruelest must be from El Diario Vasco who say “Piepoli and Menchov share the loot”.

The rider most annoyed has to be the CSC team leader, Carlos Sastre, who has said, “I’m very sorry, but I have to say it: it seems disgraceful to me that a cyclist would dedicate himself to helping a leader who isn’t part of his own team. Who am I talking about? Well, Leonardo Piepoli, obviously. This race could have been much nicer, but you can’t form alliances like that. That takes a lot of nerve”. He carries on to say, “I broke away with the idea of seeing what Piepoli’s reaction would be and I saw how he was attacking right at that moment. I was playing possum, pretending that I wasn’t feeling good, but in truth the only thing I did was confirm for sure what was going on in the race and what the strategy of Piepoli and Menchov was”. We can only hope that this annoyance will shake the otherwise timid rider into doing some more attacking!

The surprising rider of this year’s race has to be from the wild card team of Karpin-Galicia, Ezequiel Mosquera, in today’s hardest of stages he managed to stay with the leaders and only lost 33 seconds at the line to finish 9th. Overall he is in 5th position at 4 minutes 35 seconds, he knows there is a long way to go but he says he is taking it cautiously as this is unknown territory as he has never raced for three weeks before.

The other surprise must be the Irish, Ag2r rider, Philip Deignan who today in Andorra, finished just behind the leaders in 12th position, just 51 seconds down on this probably the hardest day of La Vuelta, his overall isn’t so good, he’s in 70th position, 44 minutes and 5 seconds behind the leader Menchov.

GC After Ten Stages
1. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, 39:41:51
2. Vladimir Efimkin (Rus), Caisse d’Epargne, 2:01
3. Cadel Evans (Aus), Predictor-Lotto, 2:27
4. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, 3:02
5. Ezequiel Mosquera (Sp), Karpin Galicia, 4:35
6. Samuel Sбnchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 4:42
7. Vladimir Karpets (Rus), Caisse d’Epargne, 5:49
8. Manuel Beltrбn (Sp), Liquigas, 5:56
9. Leonardo Piepoli (I), Saunier Duval, 6:06
10. Stijn Devolder (B), Discovery Channel, 6:28

The Assorted Classifications
Leader: Menchov
Climber: Menchov
Combined: Menchov
Points: Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic)
Team: Caisse d’Epargne

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