By Andrew Hood
The coordinated terrorist attacks in the United States sent shockwaves through the Vuelta a España on Tuesday, overshadowing the 175-km (108-mile) fourth stage from Leon to Gijon.
Racers from the U.S. Postal Service team and others heard whispers of what had happened in the United States, but didn’t realize the extent of the attack until they reached the finish line in Gijon.
“We heard a little bit during the race but we didn’t know how severe it was,” said Chann McRae, riding in his first race with U.S. Postal Service. “Once we got onto the team bus, we were all watching CNN and all the Americans were freaking out.”
The U.S. Postal Service quickly got all nine riders on the team bus and immediately left the race for the team hotel. Spanish riders such as Jose Luis Rubiera translated what Spanish reporters were saying to the Americans.
“Everyone’s wondering what’s going to happen. Who knows if this means war or what,” McRae said. “We don’t have words to explain it. We still don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow (for Wednesday’s fifth stage).”
McRae said none of the Americans on the U.S. Postal Service team – McRae, Antonio Cruz and Levi Leipheimer – have family in New York and other places that were attacked. McRae is from Texas and Leipheimer and Cruz are both from California. McRae thought Victor Hugo Pena had family in New York City, but he wasn’t sure.
“My family is back in America. I wish they were still in Spain,” said McRae, who lives outside of Madrid during the racing season.
U.S. Postal Service is the only American team in the 56th Vuelta a España. No other Americans are racing in the three-week grand tour.
All calls to riders at the team hotel were prohibited, according to the hotel reception, but McRae was contacted by cell phone.
Racers rode Tuesday’s 175-km (108-mile) stage oblivious about events in America. News started flashing on Spanish TV about 2:30 p.m. local time.
Johan Bruyneel, director of the U.S. Postal Service team, said he did not tell racers during Tuesday’s stage about the attack.
“I didn’t tell them and I haven’t spoken to them yet, but I am sure they are all in shock,” Bruyneel said after the stage. When asked if the team would abandon the race, he said, “No, that’s a difficult thing.”
Officials with Tailwind Sports in California, the management company that runs the team, couldn’t be reached from Spain.
Race organizers said they would discuss the attack overnight, but said it was very unlikely Wednesday’s stage from Gijon to Lagos de Covadonga would be cancelled. Officials said a statement of condolences would be released and there might be some sort of homage before Wednesday’s start.
Other racers were in shock as well. Santiago Botero, a Colombian with the Kelme team, was told by journalists about the attack during the post-race press conference.
“I can’t believe it. When you hear something like that you want to cry. It gives me goose bumps,” said Botero, who took over the overall lead from Cofidis’ David Millar. “I have no words to explain my feelings. It leaves me empty.”
Stage-winner Erik Zabel quickly went through protocol and immediately left the podium area.
“This is not a moment to be happy or show emotion,” said a Telekom team spokesman.
In the race, Zabel out-sprinted Mapei’s Oscar Freire to win his third consecutive stage. Mapei challenged the sprint because Zabel pressed Freire to the gates, but it was denied.
A crash just two kilometers from the finish spelled the end of Millar’s hold on the “maillot oro.” Riders went down about the fifth rider back as the peloton roared into Gijon and Millar was caught in the crash but didn’t go down.
“Some (explitive) idiot crashed to my left. I was right on Botero’s wheel and he slipped past but I lost both my pedals,” said an angry Millar after the race. “It’s crazy here. Every day there’s a crash. I’m disappointed for all the work my team did for me today.”
Botero, who finished just one second behind Millar’s in Saturday’s opening time trial, shot clear. Only 11 riders finished with the Zabel group, but Botero was next across at 16 seconds back in 12th place. Millar crossed the line in 31st, angrily pumping his fists on the handlebars five seconds slower than Botero. All the favorites, including U.S. Postal’s Roberto Heras, finished with Millar.
The Vuelta begins Wednesday, with the first of seven summit finishes that accent this climber’s tour. Two category-two climbs midway through the 160-km stage from Gijon to Lagos de Covadonga get things warmed up before the Alto Mirador del Fito at 120 km followed by the 1,000-meter climb to Covadonga high in the Picos de Europa.
The mood will likely be very somber at Wednesday’s start, especially once the peloton gets the chance to digest the horrible news overnight.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA, STAGE FOUR, LEON-GIJON, Sept. 11
1. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom, 175 KM (108 MILES), in 4:09:46, (42.039 kph); 2. Oscar Freire (Sp), Mapei, same time; 3. Sven Teutenberg (G), Festina, s.t.; 4. David Fernandez (Sp), Relax-Fuenlabrada, s.t.; 5. Wilfried Cretskens (B), Domo, s.t.; 6. Pedro Horrillo (Sp), Mapei, s.t.; 7. Luca Paolini (I), Mapei, s.t.; 8. Janek Tombak (Est), Cofidis, s.t.; 9. Rolf Aldag (G), Telekom, s.t.; 10. Alberto Elli (G), Telekom, s.t.
Vuelta a España, overall standings after four stages
1. Santiago Botero (C), Kelme, 11:02:20 2. David Millar (GB), Cofidis, at 4 seconds; 3. Pedro Horrillo (Sp), Mapei, at 0:11; 4. Igor Galdeano (Sp), ONCE, at 0:21; 5. Jose Guitierrez (Sp), Kelme, at 0:29; 6. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, at 0:39; 7. Alberto Elli (I), Telekom, at 0:41; 8. David Canada (Sp), Mapei, at 0:47; 9. Andrea Noe (I), Mapei, at 0:48; 10. Joseba Beloki (Sp), at 0:49
Others: 19. Abraham Olano (S), ONCE, at 0:57; 20. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, at 0:57; 34. Alex Zülle (Sw), Coast, at 1:12; 41. Gilberto Simoni (I), Lampre, at 1:20; 50. Fernando Escartin (S), Coast, at 1:28; 68. Richard Virenque (F), Domo, at 1:40; 102. Marco Pantani (I), Mercatone Uno, at 2:09