By Andrew Hood
Alberto Contador (Astana) won a mountaintop duel versus Colombian condor Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) on Thursday to win his second stage and all but secure overall victory in the Vuelta a Castilla y León.
The defending Tour de France champion pointed to his Astana jersey and fired an imaginary pistol as he crossed the line 11 seconds ahead of Soler in the 160.8km stage from Carrión de los Condes to Collado de Salcedillo.
In what should have been an exciting preview of what awaits for the 2008 Tour de France instead leaves everyone, at least everyone in Spain, wondering why Contador and Astana are being left out of this summer’s big dance.
Contador secures his grip on the overall leader’s jersey with just one stage left as he aims for a repeat victory at the Spanish five-day race.
Soler couldn’t answer Contador’s acceleration with just over 1km to go and coasted across the second at 11 seconds back to slot into second overall at 39 seconds off Contador’s pace.
It was a good test for Soler, however, who is returning from a knee injury earlier this season. The Colombian climber is bound for the Tour where he will defend his best climber’s jersey and take aim for the podium.
Riding to protect Contador’s lead, Levi Leipheimer (Astana) covered some early attacks on the middle section of the steep 9km final climb and slipped out of second place to settle into fourth, now 1:09 back.
Thomas Dekker and Denis Menchov finished third and fifth, respectively, in the stage in a solid day for the Rabobank pair, with Dekker now in third overall at 46 seconds back and Menchov climbing to fifth at 1:23 back.
Slipstream-Chipotle lost its grip on the best team classification as Rabobank took control.
For Contador — still angered by his Astana team’s exclusion from the Tour by race organizers — races like the otherwise modest Castilla y León are serving up as part of his 2008 revenge tour. Up next is the Vuelta al País Vasco in early April in Spain’s Basque reigon.
Rumors are flying in Spain that Giro d’Italia organizers are reconsidering their decision and might welcome Astana to the season’s first major stage race. Vuelta a España officials reiterated Wednesday that Astana will be welcome, but warned that any hint of scandal could see the team lose its spot.
Early in the stage, a four-man breakaway stayed clear over the day’s Cat. 3 climb with less than 20km to go and held a gap on the fast-chasing bunch. Narrow roads and light rain made the descent off the penultimate climb that much more harrowing.
Heading to the foot of the final climb, Barloworld was leading the chase to reel in the remnants of a day’s main breakaway. Oscar Pujol (Burgos-Monumental) was the first to give it a dig on the 9km climb.
Astana was well positioned at the front with Chris Horner hammering the pace. Jesus Rosendo (Andalucía-Cajasur) surged away with 5km to go, but Horner kept turning the screws when José Rujano (Caisse d’Epargne) made a dangerous acceleration that drew out Leipheimer.
More attacks came from David Lobato (Saunier Duval) and José Azevedo (Benfica), but Leipheimer smothered the aggression each time. The three hard attacks reduced the main pack down to about 20 riders with 4km to go.
With 3km to go, Soler punched the accelerator that drew out Contador, but he couldn’t drop Astana. Sergio Pardilla (Burgos-Monumental) then banged out of the lead bunch on the steepest part of the climb with 2km to go with Leipheimer marking his wheel.
Soler shot away again, drawing the attention of Contador, who seemed to wait to catch his breath before spinning away from the Colombian, Pardilla and Leipheimer. Soler couldn’t answer and Contador danced his way to the stage victory.
Team CSC’s Jason McCartney, meanwhile, abandoned Wednesday’s third stage with stomach problems.
The 23rd Vuelta a Castilla y León concludes Friday with the 158km fifth stage from Guardo to Riaño. The rollercoaster stage opens with two Category 3 climbs in the first 16km quickly followed by a Category 2 climb at 30km before tackling the narrow and steep Cat. 2 Puerto de Señales with about 20km to a downhill, flat finish into the finish.