By Andrew Hood
The first day of the Vuelta a España’s shootout of the Pyrénées ended with puff instead of bang in the first of three-straight climbing stages, but everyone expects the fireworks to begin for real in Wednesday’s six-climb etapa reina.
Santiago Blanco won his biggest stage of his career, delivering a dramatic solo victory high in the Catalan Pyrénées during Tuesday’s 168-km (104-mile) 10th stage from Sabadell, a suburb of Barcelona, to La Molina, a ski resort already sprinkled with the first snow of the season.
ONCE’s Joseba Beloki easily retained his overall lead for the third day when he finished safely in the lead group of 18 riders. U.S. Postal’s Levi Leipheimer and defending Vuelta champion Roberto Heras also finished in the lead group to maintain their respective fifth and eighth places overall.
Blanco attacked six kilometers from the summit of the day’s main obstacle, the category-one Alto de la Creueta at 135 kms into the stage, which climbed more than 3,000 feet over a long, steep 21-km climb. Blanco dropped Denmark’s Klaus Moller (Maia) and Antonio Tauler (Kelme) and finished alone, more than 4 minutes ahead of the lead group of climbers.
Blanco gave ibanesto.com its third victory in as many mountain stages of the 56th Vuelta. Blanco won in 4 hours, 20 minutes, 23 seconds with an average speed of 38.804 kph. Moller crossed the line second, at 2:57 back, while Tauler hung on for third at 4:09 back.
Cofidis’ David Millar faded on the final three-km ramp to finish, but moved into 10th overall after ONCE’s Igor Galdeano also faded.
With Blanco and his pursuers well ahead, the lead group of climbers was whittled down from 40 to 25 climbers over the long grinding climb up Creueta. Heras tested his legs in two attacks, once on Creueta and again on the final climb to La Molina.
“This was not a stage to win. Rather, I attacked to test my legs. It builds my confidence for the coming days,” said Heras, eighth overall at 2:47 back. “I know I have to attack in these stages. Tomorrow is the day to get time if I am going to win this Vuelta.”
One rider brimming with confidence is U.S. Postal’s Leipheimer. One team soigneur said Leipheimer is dreaming, but his dream might just come true. If Leipheimer gets through Wednesday’s tough six-climb stage, he stands a good chance of winning the climbing time trial at Arcalis on Thursday and edge closer to the overall lead.
Leipheimer said he felt comfortable throughout Tuesday’s stage and didn’t feel stressed until the final 5-km, 600-foot climb to La Molina.
“I was never at my threshold, not until the last two or three kilometers,” said Leipheimer, fifth overall at 1:57 back. “I’m feeling good. The race is at the halfway point and I’m not feeling worse, I’m feeling better.”
U.S. Postal Service teammate Antonio Cruz said Leipheimer’s steady hand is no act.
“You can just tell everyday he’s getting more confident. He’s got that look about him. Someone said Levi looks like a coiled spring,” Cruz said. “Not having the lead now takes the pressure off Postal and puts it on Kelme and ONCE, which is good for us now. We’re confident. We have three guys still with possibilities.”
Leipheimer said the team would continue to work for Heras, who now has no choice but to attack.
“I just have to follow the leaders. There’s no reason for me to attack. All I can do is sit and wait for Roberto to attack. Roberto has to try to make up some time and if he’s up the road, that’s good for me,” Leipheimer said. “I can just follow in the mountains and make up time in the time trials.”
Wednesday’s 154-km (95-mile) climbing stage through Andorra will reveal the fate of many. The stage features two category-two climbs, three category-one climbs and the beyond-category climb to Pal.
Race leader Beloki said Wednesday’s stage is bound to shake up the overall standings, with the top-10 separated by less than four minutes.
“Tomorrow is going to be very dangerous with such small time differences between the favorites,” said Beloki, who maintained his slim 14-second lead over Oscar Sevilla. “I think the winner will be decided in the next two days.”
VUELTA A ESPANA, STAGE 10, SABADELL TO LA MOLINA
1. Santiago Blanco (Sp), ibanesto.com, 168.4 kilometers in 4:20:23 (38.804 kph); 2. Klaus Moller (D), Milanesa, at 2:57; 3. Antonio Tauler (Sp), Kelme, at 4:09; 4. Jose Maria Jimenez (Sp), ibanesto.com, at 4:19; 5. Unai Osa (Sp), ibanesto.com, at 4:23; 6. Fernando Escartin (Sp), Coast, same time; 7. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, s.t.; 8. Aitor Osa (Sp), ibanesto.com, s.t.; 9. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 10. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.
13. Jose Luis Rubiera (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 23. David Millar (GBR), Cofidis, at 4:31
Overall standings after 10 stages
1. Joseba Beloki (Sp), ONCE, 32:45:55; 2. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, at 14 seconds; 3. Angel Casero (Sp), Festina, at 0:51; 4. Santiago Botero (Col), Kelme, at 1:28; 5. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 1:57; 6. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), ibanesto.com, at 2:00; 7. David Plaza (Sp), Festina, at 2:10; 8. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:47; 9. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskatel, at 3:14; 10. David Millar (GBR), Cofidis, at 3:58