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By Andrew Hood
The third stage of the Volta a Valenciana ended on a controversial note Thursday as a misdirected peloton split between a highway and a frontage road in the decisive final 5km of the 166.5km climbing course around Ibi.
Ruben Plaza (Benfica) stole away the leader’s jersey from José Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d’Epargne) in one of the most bizarre mishaps in recent cycling history.
Plaza was riding into the leader’s jersey thanks to the help from stage-hunter Manuel Vázquez (Contentpolis) after the pair attacked over the day’s final Cat. 2 climb with less than 20km to go.
They were nursing a 20-second lead when the chasing peloton incorrectly followed a race official’s motorcycle onto a four-lane highway full of traffic with about 5km to go on flat roads.
Vázquez and Plaza — who started the day in second at four seconds behind Gutiérrez — correctly took the exit onto a frontage road and barreled toward the finish. Another group of riders also found its way onto the frontage road in the confusion.
Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Astana) was part of a group of about 15 riders in the errant group featuring the desperately chasing Gutiérrez. Contador laughed to TV cameras at the bizarre scene as the dual pelotons rode side-by-side on separate roads.
Officials scrambled to stop traffic in a potentially dangerous situation and clear the way for the two groups to rejoin with about 2km to go.
By then, it was too late. Vázquez rolled in for the stage victory and secured the mountain jersey while Plaza stole away the leader’s jersey thanks to 10 seconds in time bonuses he earned on the road.
The Gutiérrez group crossed the line 21 seconds back (later adjusted to 16 seconds by the race jury) and he fell to third at 21 seconds behind Plaza, with Vazquez slotting into second overall at five seconds back.
For Plaza, a rider who’s been muddied by the Operación Puerto, taking control of the race in his hometown of Ibi was a dream come true after two years of denying any involvement in the blood doping investigation.
Caisse d’Epargne, however, quickly cried foul and said Gutiérrez unfairly lost the leader’s jersey due to the logistical glitch. The team filed a protest.
“What happened is a real pity. Races are sometimes like that and this is not the first time or the last time that something like this happens,” said Caisse d’Epargne sport director Neil Stephens. “I feel really sorry for our riders because they were realizing such an extraordinary effort to win the race. We were real close to win it and now we have probably lost it all.”
The stage started without mishap.
For the third day in a row, a Slipstream-Chipotle rider was in the mix in the day’s main breakaway.
Pat McCarty joined a three-man move that also included Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom) and Koos Moerenhout (Rabobank). The trio chugged away about 50km into the stage and built up a lead of 4:52 halfway through the bumpy, four-climb stage.
The breakaway dissolved over the day’s final hurdle on the Cat. 2 Port de Carrasqueta with about 30km to go.
Astana was looking anxious to spring Contador, but the 2007 Tour champ was closely marked by a motivated Caisse d’Epargne team jealously guarding Gutiérrez’ hold on the leader’s jersey.
Vázquez attacked with about 5km to go on the climb in a move that quickly drew out Plaza. The pair worked well together over the summit and drove a decisive difference off the summit.
It was unclear whether the peloton could have reeled in Plaza and Vazquez because they were collaborating with shared interests and Gutiérrez wasn’t getting much help on the chase.
Milram was coming to life, however, with the presence of Christian Knees in the lead bunch.
“That was very unfortunate, but in the end I am just happy that nothing happened to anyone,” said Knees, who finished 15th. “I had really good legs and the race was going perfectly, then something like this happens. I was happy when we got back onto the planned route, but by then I t was too late to finish near the top.”
Slipstream’s Ryder Hesjedal and Trent Lowe finished fifth and 22nd, respectively, at 16 seconds back in the Gutiérrez chase group to retain their strong GC placings. Hesjedal is now eighth and Lowe 16th, both at 31 seconds back.
The 66th Valencia tour resumes Friday with the rolling 175.6km fourth stage around the hills near Náquera. The profile favors a bunch sprint, unless the peloton takes another wrong turn.
Stage 3 results:
1. Manuel Vazquez (Contentpolis)
2. Ruben Plaza (Benfica)
3. Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom)
4. David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott)
5. Ryder Hesjedal (Slipstream-Chipotle)
1. Plaza 12 h 26:55.
2. Vazquez @ .05
3. Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne) @ .21
4. Florencio @ .23
5. Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi)@ .27
6. Alberto Contador (Astana) @.29