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La Vuelta a España: Contador, Sastre ready for the battle ahead

Contador may find the Angrilu similar to this year's climb to the Plan de Corones at the Giro.

Contador may find the Angrilu similar to this year’s climb to the Plan de Corones at the Giro.

Photo: AFP (file photo)

As the organizer of the third of the world’s three grand tours, Victor Cordero spotted a unique opportunity to turn the 2008 Vuelta a Espana into something special when Spaniard Alberto Contador won this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Barred from competing in the Tour de France, Contador’s last-minute invitation to the Giro set up a unique opportunity for the 25-year-old Astana leader … as well as for Cordero and the Vuelta. Contador could become only the fifth rider in history to complete a grand tour sweep and, if he does it this month, he will have done so in the shortest time ever, adding to his Giro title and last year’s Tour de France win.

Of course, hoping to derail those plans is none other than Contador’s fellow Spaniard, this year’s Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, who could achieve a rare distinction of winning two grand tours within two months. Cordero, for one, couldn’t be happier.

“This year’s Vuelta matches up two of Spain’s greatest riders, either of whom could make history by winning here,” Cordero said. “This race has – and will – generate a lot of interest in cycling … especially here in Spain.”

It may be the boost Cordero and the Vuelta need, after years of declining television audiences and shrinking domestic fan base. This year’s race is generating more interest in Spain than have recent editions and that can only increase as the route turns to the mountains.

Top 10, after stage 6
1.Sylvain Chavanel, (F) Cofidis
2. Levi Leipheimer, (USA) Astana at 0:10
3. Alejandro Valverde, (Sp) Caisse d’Epargne at 0:26
4. Alberto Contador, (Sp) Astana at 0:57
5. Carlos Sastre, (Sp) CSC at 1:37
6. Daniele Bennati, (I) Liquigas at 1:42
7. Antonio Flecha, Juan (Sp) Rabobank at 2:01
8. Dominique Cornu, (B) Silence-Lotto at 2:06
9. Daniel Moreno Fernandez, (Sp) Caisse d’Epargne at 2:20
10. Igor Anton, (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 2:27

After a week of racing, Cordero’s hoped-for show-down is still a distinct possibility with Contador and Sastre sitting in fourth and fifth place in the overall standings, separated by just 40 seconds. That margin may well evaporate by the time the winner reaches the finish at Naturlandia, atop the difficult La Rabassa climb. Should either man fail, there will be plenty of others trying to make a mark. Topping the list, is Contador’s teammate Levi Leipheimer, who scored an impressive win in the Stage 5 individual time trial.

On Saturday, riders will make two trips up La Rabassa, cresting the Category 1 ascent for the first time at the 193.4km mark, dropping down a fast descent and repeating the climb before finishing four kilometers further up the mountain for the beyond category finish at Naturlandia.

Sastre wants to add to his jersey collection, too.

Sastre wants to add to his jersey collection, too.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

It’s the sort of profile that is bound to shake up the general classification and Sunday’s four-climb 151km stage will do further damage to the hopes of many hoping to make the podium in Madrid in two weeks.

Sunday’s race from Andora to the summit of Pla de Beret is shorter, which may invite early attacks. Unlike last week’s short and flat stages, though, the terrain may ensure success for a strong break-away effort and top contenders will have to be vigilant as the peloton cross the Category 1 Coll de Cantó (km 41). The Cat. 2 Alto de Enveny (km 68.7) and then take on the double Cat. 1 hurdles of the Puerto de la Bonaigua and the Pla de Beret.

The following days don’t provide as much opportunity for a rider to make a big impact on the race, but the four stages before next Friday’s rest day could offer those in the hunt for stage wins an opportunity to steal a victory from the sprinters who have survived this weekend’s trip into the mountains. Of course, with racing in open country with Spain’s famous strong winds, even those stage could pose risks to riders and teams caught up in the wrong echelon in the event of strong cross winds.

The feared Angrilu is making only its fourth appearance in a grand tour.

The feared Angrilu is making only its fourth appearance in a grand tour.


Following next week’s rest day, the peloton faces another two days of mountain-top finishes, led off by stage 13’s 209.5-kilometer race from San Vicente to the top of the Alto de L’Angliru in Asturias. The brutal climb has not been featured in the Vuelta since 2002. Remarkably the difficult climb has only been used three times – 1999, 2000 and 2002 – in the Vuelta and it has proved to be decisive each time. Most recently, Roberto Heras used the Angrilu to seal his overall victory in the 2002 Vuelta.

Just looking at the numbers is enough to strike fear in the hearts of all but the most dedicated mountaingoat.The first five kilometers of the climb average a stiff, but manageable, 7.6 percent. There is a brief lull before the road tips up to a 13.1 percent average to the summit, including the brutally difficult Cueña les Cabres slope, which hits 23.6 percent, followed by sections of 18 and 21 percent grades.

The winner of stage 13 may well have the overall title secured by then, but if the race remains tight, the next day will provide another opportunity for battle. September 14th’s 158.4-kilometer stage from Oviedo to the ski resort at Fuentes de Invierno starts with a series of three Cat. 3 climbs over the first 35 kilometers. Those simply provide a warm-up for the final half of the stage which includes three Cat. 1 climbs, starting with the Alto de la Colladona (70.3km), the Alto de la Colladiella and the final ascent to the finish at the Fuentes de Invierno ski resort.

For the next five days, the peloton will face generally moderate stages, some with substantial climbs, but early enough in the days’ action to allow early escapees to be reeled in by an attentive team concerned about protecting the leader’s jersey.

If the final outcome of the Vuelta remains in doubt, the race’s final test will settle the issue once and for all with a stage 20 time trial, a 17.1km race against the clock between La Granja de San Ildefonso and the peak of the Cat. 1 Navacerrada.

The final stage, on Sunday, September 21, will undoubtedly serve as a winner’s parade into Madrid, but there will be plenty of racing before anyone knows just who will be clinking glasses of Cava on that final day of the 2008 Vuelta.

Remaining stages:
Stage 7, September 6:
Barbastro-Andorra (Naturlandia-La Rabassa), 223.2km
Stage 8, September 7:
Andorra (Escaldes-Engordany)-Pla de Beret, 160km
Stage 9, September 8:
Viella-Sabiñánigo, 198km
Stage 10, September 9:
Sabiñánigo-Zaragoza, 173km
Stage 11, September 10:
Calahorra-Burgos, 178km
Stage 12, September 11:
Burgos-Suances, 180km
September 12:
Second rest day
Stage 13, September 13:
San Vicente de la B.-Alto de L’Angliru, 199km
Stage 14, September 14:
Oviedo-E. E. Fuentes de Invierno, 158
Stage 15, September 15:
Cudillero-Ponferrada, 198km
Stage 16, September 16:
Ponferrada-Zamora, 185km
Stage 17, September 17:
Zamora-Valladolid, 160km
Stage 18, September 18:
Valladolid-Las Rozas, 179km
Stage 19, September 19:
Las Rozas-Segovia, 161km
Stage 20, September 20:
La Granja de S. I.-Alto de Navacerrada, 17.1km (individual time trial)
Stage 21, September 21:
S. Sebastián de los Reyes-Madrid, 110km

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