Igor Antón skipped the Tour de France to be ready for the Vuelta a España, a sometimes risky decision for a rider who’s looking to confirm the hype that’s followed him since he won a mountain-top stage at the 2005 Vuelta.
The bet seems to be paying off the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider, who shot to victory in Tuesday’s electric 183.8km fourth stage from Málaga to Valdepeñas de Jaén. Antón shot up the final steep run to the finish line with ramps as steep as 25 percent to fend off pre-race favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
With a brutally steep final 500 meters capping another hot stage, most thought Rodríguez, second in Monday’s stage to Málaga, would be the man to beat. He was certainly the man to watch, and Antón took advantage of Rodríguez’ pre-race favorite status to notch the win and climb into second overall at 10 seconds behind Philippe Gilbert (Omega-Lotto).
“I skipped the Tour to prepare especially for the Vuelta. It’s a mountainous course that suits me and I hope to have a shot at the podium,” said Antón, who crossed the line one second ahead of Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Velits and Rodríguez.
“I’m very happy with this win. You learn about your limits and your capabilities, I knew that it would be a good finish for me, so I had the mentality of going for the win,” Antón continued. “Now I am getting close to the jersey, it’s very tight in GC, just a few seconds separates everyone.”
Gilbert rode to fifth at five seconds back to defend his leader’s jersey, finishing just ahead of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia), who slotted into sixth overall at 29 seconds back.
“I let go a little bit on the final climb (Cat. 2 Alto de Valdepeñas de Jaén with 8km to go). Some riders cannot descend well and I wanted to save something in my legs for the final,” Gilbert said. “The finish was very steep. Maybe I started too late my sprint, I missed a chance to win another stage but I kept the jersey, so I am pleased about that.”
Early breakaway across ‘España profunda’
So far, the 65th Vuelta has delivered one surprise after another. One reason why is the route selection, which, so far at least, has avoided the long, wide-open major roadways and turned instead into the forgotten back roads of deep Spain.
That was certainly the case in Tuesday’s run from the coast into the heartland of Spain’s olive oil country. The Jaén region is the largest producer of olive oil in the world and locals call it “liquid gold.”
Bike racers hate the stuff because it makes the roads tremendously slippery. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) brushed off a crash Monday on roads near an olive oil factory. Tuesday’s route stayed on narrow, twisting roads that made for an exciting finale.
Four riders broke clear early, with Sergio Carraso (Andalucia-CajaSur), Dario Cataldo (Quick Step), Guillaume Bonnafond (Ag2r) and Dominik Roels (Milram) taking the initiative at 16km.
They built up a gap of six minutes before Omega-Lotto and Katusha collaborated to reel in the move to set up the favorites for the duel on the packed streets Valdepeñas de Jaén. The town only has 5,000 people, but it seemed the entire town had turned out to party and welcome the Vuelta to town.
All of Katusha’s hard work fell short when Rodríguez didn’t quite have the spark to win the stage.
“I felt good today and I was hoping to win and get the jersey, but I was so much pushed as the favorite by the media that perhaps that didn’t do my any favors because everyone was marking my wheel,” he said, now third at 10 seconds back. “The team did a great job on the climb to set me up. We were hoping for more today, but this Vuelta is just beginning.”
The final charge up the narrow streets saw some of the GC favorites duke it out. Right there in the mix was Van Garderen, showing he’s up to the task in his grand tour debut. HTC-Columbia teammate Peter Velits rode to an impressive third under extreme conditions, both solid results for the pair of young riders.
The stage also seemed ideal for Nibali, third overall at the Giro, but he said his chances will come later in this Vuelta.
“I was watching Rodríguez because everyone knew he was going for the victory. The final was very hard. Though I couldn’t win, my performance shows that I am in good form,” said Nibali, who slots into fourth overall at 12 seconds back. “I am feeling good for the Vuelta. I missed the Tour so I want to have a good ride here in Spain.”
Heat taking its toll
Temperatures once again shot into the high 90s. Even though high clouds blocked some of the direct glare of the sun, it was still very warm and challenging for the peloton.
Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia) was the day’s lone abandon, which could be a blow for sprinter Mark Cavendish going into Wednesday’s sprint-friendly stage.
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) suffered a mechanical near the top of the day’s final climb, but he admitted yesterday that he doesn’t have the same form as he did in July when he finished second to Alberto Contador in the Tour de France.
“I worked for helping Fränk to be well positioned in the climb”, he told reporters at the finish. “Even if I didn’t have a mechanical, I would have let them go. My job for the day was done. I’m not yet at the level I want but I already felt much better today than yesterday.”
All seven remaining riders from Team Sky made it through the stage. The team lost two riders yesterday as a stomach bug is ravaging the team.
Another rider who is struggling is Carlos Sastre (Cervélo). The 2008 Tour de France champion lost 1:34 to Antón and sunk to 22nd at 2:15 back.
“The sensations right now are not the best, but my motivation remains and I will keep fighting day by day, even though there are others who are fresher than me right now,” Sastre said. “When I decided to race the Vuelta, I knew the decision to race three grand tours in the same season was a big undertaking during a year, that for one reason or another, I’ve always had setbacks, with crashes, problems or illnesses.”
Garmin fighting through early setbacks
Garmin-Transitions is also suffering through the extreme conditions so far in this Vuelta.
Tyler Farrar is suffering from a stomach bug, but team officials expected him to be able to continue. Dave Zabriskie suffered with a mild heat stroke and fell off the pace on the day’s final climb. Julian Dean, who crashed while warming up for the team time trial, continues to fight through pain to stay in the race.
Dean and Zabriskie crossed the line together at the back of the gruppetto at 25:14 back and Dean is last overall at 1h09:58.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tom Danielson did well in Tuesday’s battle to cross the line 17th at 36 seconds back and slotted into 16th at 1:21 back to keep alive his GC hopes.
“It’s been brutal these first few days of the Vuelta for us,” said Garmin-Transitions sport director Johnny Weltz. “Julian is really beat up, so he’s taking it day-to-day. Tyler had some stomach problems and Dave struggled with the heat. We’re still in there. Tom had a good ride today, because these short, explosive climbs are not his style. We want to keep him protected until we get to the Pyrénées and Asturias where he will do better on those longer climbs.”
The 65th Vuelta continues Wednesday with what’s like a relatively easy day on paper and should see a bunch sprint. But there are no flat roads across Andalucía, less so the deeper they go into “España profunda.”
Brief results: (Complete results)
- 1. Igor ANTON HERNANDEZ, (ESP) Euskaltel-Euskadi, in 5:00:29
- 2. Vincenzo NIBALI, (ITA) Liquigas-Doimo, at 0
- 3. Peter VELITS, (SVK) HTC-Columbia, at 1
- 4. Joaquin RODRIGUEZ OLIVER, (ESP) Team Katusha, at 1
- 5. Philippe GILBERT, (BEL) Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 5
- … Complete results
GC after stage 4:
- 1. Philippe GILBERT, (BEL) Omega Pharma-Lotto, in 13:56:30
- 2. Igor ANTON HERNANDEZ, (ESP) Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0
- 3. Joaquin RODRIGUEZ OLIVER, (ESP) Team Katusha, at 10
- 4. Vincenzo NIBALI, (ITA) Liquigas-Doimo, at 12
- 5. Peter VELITS, (SVK) HTC-Columbia, at 16
- … Complete results