Aussie rider Luke Roberts is back in the European winner’s circle after claiming Friday’s decisive climbing stage at the Vuelta a Murcia in Spain on Friday.
Josep Jufre (Astana) finished third and slipped into the leader’s jersey after overnight leader Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Transitions) left the race when his wife went into labor, but it was unlikely that the South African would have made it over with the first group over the day’s most climb up the Alto de Collado Bermejo.
Lance Armstrong and Andreas Klöden (RadioShack), rookie Peter Stetina (Garmin-Transitions), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) were among a group of 30 riders who roared into Alhama to contest for victory in the 166.5km stage that featured the hardest climbs in the five-day race across Spain’s arid Murcia region. Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions), however, lost more than eight minutes on the stage and forfeited options for a run at the overall. (Click to see more Graham Watson photos.)
Team Sky helped shut down a late-stage attack before Roberts outkicked Sergey Lagutin (who was on the attack yesterday for Vacansoleil) with Jufre coming across third to take the leader’s jersey. Defending champion Denis Menchov, making his season debut for Rabobank, crossed the line fourth.
“This was a perfect stage for us. After the good performances the past few days were not rewarded, this is very satisfactory for us,” said Milram sport director Ralf Grabsch. “Our team brought Luke Roberts and Tommy Rohregger into the finale very well. In the end, there were no sprinters and we had the strongest riders there with Roberts.”
Roberts, 33, turned pro after striking Olympic gold in the team pursuit in 2004, riding with CSC from 2005-07. He raced on Team Kuota the past two seasons and got a ticket back to the European elite this year with Milram, and he was quick to pay back the team for the support.
There was plenty of action in the “queen stage,” with none other than Wiggins instigating a breakaway attempt in the opening 10km. Nine other riders trailed after Wiggins, but RadioShack quickly organized a chance to snuff out the move.
A counter-attack formed immediately after and four riders were able to get away, building up an eight-minute lead heading towards a pair of first-category climbs. In the group were Michael Kwitakowski (Caja Rural), Nicki Westra (Vacansoleil), Jan Barta (NetApp) and Marcel Barth (German national team).
With Garmin-Transitions, Team Sky and RadioShack leading the chase, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Westa and Barta put in solid digs up the Cat. 1 Bermejo climb to hold a small gap, but with 23km to go to the finish line, their chances were minimal.
The main pack fractured heading up the steep climb, but most of the GC favorites regrouped for the fast run into Alhama for the group sprint. Big crowds came out to cheer the riders over the most famous climb in the area.
Peter Weening (Rabobank) attacked, drawing out Jufre, Stefan Denifl (Cervélo) and Rob Ruygh and Wouter Poels (both Vacansoleil). The quintet opened up a promising gap, putting pressure on RadioShack and Sky to lead the chase.
The group was caught with less than 3km to go to set up a bunch sprint for the win, with Roberts taking the flowers.
The explosive day of racing sets up a decisive time trial battle in Saturday’s 22km race against the clock. Some 21 riders will start within 5 seconds of Roberts, who’s no slouch in the time trial.
The flat course should favor the likes of Wiggins, Armstrong and Klöden, but Frantisek Rabon (HTC-Columbia) in third and Stef Clement (Rabobank), 18th at 5 seconds back, should not be overlooked.
Top-10 Stage 3
1. Luke Roberts (AUS) Team Milram, 4:16:47
2. Sergey Lagutin (UZB) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team, s.t.
3. Josep Jufre (ESP) Astana, s.t.
4. Denis Menchov (RUS) Rabobank, s.t.
5. Andreas Klöden (GER) Team Radioshack, s.t.
6. Steven Kruijswijk (NED) Rabobank, s.t.
7. Stefan Denifl (AUT) Cervello Test Team, s.t.
8. Michel Kreder (NED) Garmin – Transitions, s.t.
9. Bradley Wiggins (GBR) Team Sky, s.t.
10. José Herrada (ESP) Caja Rural, s.t.
1. Josep Jufre (ESP) Astana, 12:52:39
2. Luke Roberts (AUS) Team Milram, s.t.
3. Frantisek Rabon (CZE) Team Htc – Columbia, s.t.
4. Rob Ruijgh (NED) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team, s.t.
5. Thomas Rohregger (AUT) Team Milram, s.t.
6. Tomasz Marczynski (POL) Ccc Polsat Polkowice, s.t.
7. Wouter Poels (NED) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team, s.t.
8. Matteo Carrara (ITA) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team, s.t.
9. Pieter Weening (NED) Rabobank, s.t.
10. Sergey Lagutin (UZB) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team, at 0:05