Peter Sagan won stage 6 of the 2011 Vuelta a España on Thursday out of what was basically a Liquigas-Cannondale team time trial.

2011 Vuelta a España, stage 6, Peter Sagan
Peter Sagan wins stage 6. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

CORDOBA, Spain (VN) — One tactic to all but assure a stage victory is to have half the team ride into the winning breakaway.

That’s what Liquigas-Cannondale did Thursday — placing four riders into the five-man winning move in Thursday’s hot and explosive 193.4km sixth stage from Úbeda to Córdoba.

It was only Spain’s Pablo Lastras (Movistar) who tried to dispute the inevitability of the result, as Peter Sagan swept to the first grand-tour victory of his promising career.

“That wasn’t our tactic. The road decided what happened,” said Sagan. “There was a split in the front group and there were four of us there. Lastras was there, but he wasn’t going to work, so we had to be careful. The most important was that one of us from the team won. It was a very good day for us.”

But Liquigas almost blew the stage when the team couldn’t quite figure out whom they wanted to put in position to win. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, arguably the best descender in the sport right now, forced the winning gap coming off the day’s main hurdle at a second-category climb with 20km to go. Joining from Liquigas were Eros Capecchi and Valerio Agnoli.

Liquigas came up big, but Nibali walked away with nothing. Crossing the line fourth, he missed out on time bonuses, which went to the top-three finishers, and a chance to grab the leader’s jersey.

Nibali gained valuable seconds on his rivals, however, who dribbled in groups at 17 seconds and 23 seconds adrift, but could have taken even more time.

Sagan said the team reacted to the circumstances on the road and did not want to risk losing the stage by trying to place Nibali in position to win the stage against the wily Lastras, who took second and nearly snuck away with the victory.

“Lastras didn’t want to pull because there were four of us,” Sagan said. “With Vincenzo thinking about the GC, I was the one who had to make the sprint. I am very happy to have won today.”

The attacks splintered the GC group, with Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) leading a group of 10 across the line at 17 seconds back that included Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). Another group of 43, with Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Jani Brajkovic (RadioShack) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), trailed through at 23 seconds slower.

Chavanel actually widened his lead, now 15 seconds ahead of Dani Moreno (Katusha), while Nibali climbed into third at 16 seconds back.

Nibali was philosophical after the stage. Although he missed out on time bonuses and perhaps a shot at the leader’s jersey, he said the most important thing was to win the stage.

“Lastras was there and it made it complicated for us. Things were unfolding very fast. In a situation like that, the most important thing was to win the stage. We couldn’t let us not win the stage when we had four out of five in the break!” Nibali said.

“We knew we wanted to make the stage hard and we were already thinking of riding for Sagan today. When we attacked on the descent, we created a gap and decided to keep it going. Sure, it could have been better if I had gotten some bonus seconds, but we are very content to win the stage. It was a great day for the team.”

Breschel KO’d, Garmin works

Matt Breschel (Rabobank) was optimistic before the start of Thursday’s sixth stage that the worse was behind him. Last year’s world championship runner-up, Breschel was getting back his form after two knee surgeries all but ruined his 2011 season.

“I am feeling like a bike racer again. The form is good,” Breschel told VeloNews before the start. “I think today could be good for me. The legs are good.”

But Breschel was soon in an ambulance with stitches to his chin and possible broken fingers, which could doom his hopes of getting back to the worlds on home roads in Copenhagen.

2011 Vuelta a España, stage 6, Taylor Phinney
Taylor Phinney in a break during stage 6. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Rabobank officials said Breschel hit some sort of bump or pothole in the road during the neutralized rollout before the official start of the stage and crashed hard on his hands and face. No other riders were involved.

As has been the case all week in Spain, it was another warm stage, with temperatures eventually reaching 38C in Córdoba.

Taylor Phinney (BMC) tried to sneak into an early breakaway in the opening 10km, hooking up with three other riders, but Andalucia-Caja Granada and Cofidis chased it down at 22km to go.

It took a while before the day’s move eventually pulled clear, with race leader Chavanel and Rodriguez each trying in vain to sneak into other early moves in the first hour of racing.

Four riders eventually pulled clear, with Aleksejs Saramotins (Cofidis), Martin Kohler (BMC Racing Team), Yukihiro Doi (Skil-Shimano) and Adrian Palomares (Andalucia-Caja Granada) slipping away at 70km.

Within 30km, the foursome had 8:11 at 102km and the chase was on.

“I was trying the whole day to make the breakaway and it was 60 kilometers before it went,” Kohler said. “Unfortunately, we were only four riders and not the strongest ones from the peloton. I’ve needed some days to get adjusted. I’ve been finishing with the gruppetto and really couldn’t show anything until now. But it’s a three-week race and there are more days to come. So it won’t be the last time I’m in the breakaway.”

2011 Vuelta a España, stage 6, Talansky and Klier
Andrew Talansky and Andreas Klier lead the chase. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Garmin-Cervélo led the chase for the final half of the stage, with the team putting four riders on the front to neutralize the break at 168km as the peloton roared through the first passage in Córdoba ahead of the day’s main hurdle. Kohler was the last man standing.

“We were working for Heinrich (Haussler) today, but he did not feel so good on the climb,” said Garmin’s Christophe Le Mevel. “This Vuelta has been so hard in the first week. We took the responsibility of the stage today and tomorrow we will try again with Tyler (Farrar). That climb was too hard for the sprinters.”

Martin, Moncoutie attack

The aptly named Alto de Catorce Por cent (the pass of 14 percent) was steep enough to shed the peloton’s pure sprinters. One by one, the peloton’s fastest riders were dropped off the back. Garmin’s Haussler and Farrar both quickly faded.

“I knew today I had no chance, especially with this heat we’ve been having,” Farrar said. “Tomorrow is going to be a sprint for sure. I hope that I have good legs and can try to win the stage. There are not many chances for the sprinters in this Vuelta.”

The lead group was quickly whittled down to about 100 riders when David Moncoutie (Cofidis) bolted clear near the top of the climb. The three-time defending King of the Mountains scooped up points for the second day in a row as he drove first up the second-category summit with 20km to go.

Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) surged away to latch on to Moncoutie and churned his legs to open a promising gap, with David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick-Step) following the move.

Liquigas was chasing hard, keen to set up Sagan and perhaps create a wedge between some of the GC favorites. The Martin-Moncoutie group was reeled in with 8km to go when Nibali and Sagan, along with Agnoli and Capecchi, sprang clear.

Lastras was outnumbered with four Liquigas jerseys, but he nearly pulled off an upset as it appeared Liquigas were jockeying to position Nibali and Sagan at the front to win the stage and take time bonuses.

“I was outgunned, so second in this situation is not so bad,” Lastras said. “I crossed over the top in good position and I tried on the descent. Liquigas was very fast and we were taking risks to open up a gap. In the end, I tried to surprise them on the hardest side of the sprint, but Sagan is a rider who is touched with a magic wand.”

Not everyone was pleased with how the stage unfolded. Carlos Sastre, the 2008 Tour de France champion, said the descent proved decisive.

2011 Vuelta a España, stage 6, Sylvain Chavanel
Sylvain Chavanel defended his leader's jersey for another day. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

“Today’s stage was truly fast, once again difficult, with a lot of heat and we saw on the stage that the descent was more decisive than the actual climb,” said Sastre, who finished in the group at 23 seconds back. “I tried to limit the risks. We tried to limit the losses on the downhill as best we could.”

Nibali happily took those extra seconds, but missed a chance on taking time bonuses at the line when he crossed fourth, as he climbed into third place at 16 seconds behind Chavanel.

If he had taken the stage win and the 20-second time bonus, Nibali would have had the red leader’s jersey. Instead, it was Sagan taking the cake.

Friday’s stage

The 66th Vuelta continues Friday with the 182.9km seventh stage from Almadén to Talavera de la Reina in what’s just the second chance for the sprinters so far in the first week of the Spanish tour.

The rolling stage features no rated climbs and should produce the Vuelta’s first shot for the peloton’s pure sprinters.

The likes of Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), Oscare Freire (Rabobank), Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) and JJ Haedo (Saxo Bank-SunGard) will have their teams working to set up the mass gallop.

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