By Andrew Hood
It was the best of times and the worst of times in the 11th stage of the Vuelta a España, depending, of course, on who you talked to.
Wednesday was very good for Kelme’s Oscar Sevilla, who regained the overall lead.
It was very bad for ONCE’s Joseba Beloki, who bonked and dropped like a rock to 26th in the overall standings after losing nearly 20 minutes to the leaders in the tough, six-climb 154-km (95-mile) stage over the Andorran Pyrénées.
It was pretty good for U.S. Postal’s Levi Leipheimer and Roberto Heras, who moved up to fourth and fifth overall, respectively.
It was better still for iBanesto.com Jose Maria Jimenez, who won his second stage of this Vuelta and continued the team’s dominance in the Vuelta’s climbing stages.
Just another day in this topsy-turvy 56th Vuelta a España.
The etapa reina, or queen’s stage, started fast and furious under a strong Iberian sun and never slowed down. It was business as usual for the favorites over the first two climbs of the stage – the category-two Col de la Perche and the category-one Col d’Egat before things went sour for Beloki up the long, grinding climb to the category-one Port d’Envalira, the highest point of this year’s Vuelta at 2,410 meters (7,953 feet).
Beloki, who started in the “maillot oro” race leader’s jersey with a slim 14-second lead over Sevilla, dropped back and lost contact with the fast-driving lead group early in the 33-km climb.
With his mouth agape, Beloki “bonked” and could barely manage to hang on. Three ONCE teammates went back to help their team leader, but all was lost.
“I am demoralized,” said Beloki, who finished in 70th at 19:55 back dropped to 26th overall. “I have to consider what happened because I have never suffered such a brusque change of fortunes. My legs didn’t respond from the first climb. I am desolate for all the work my team has done for me.”
The lead group of 20 riders roared down the high pass into Andorra, the small principality squeezed between France and Spain deep in the Pyrenees.
Jimenez attacked up the category-one climb to Coll d’Ordino, building a gap ahead of a chasing pair led by U.S. Postal’s Jose Luis Rubiera and Lampre’s Gilberto Simoni. Leipheimer and Heras were chugging along with the lead group and Sevilla accelerated on the final push to the summit.
Jimenez had a 1:43 gap at the base of the 11-km beyond-category climb to the ski resort at Pal, high above the Andorra valley floor.
Jimenez cranked in the big ring on the lower flanks of the climb and built up a 2:03 gap with 5 kilometers to go. He held a 1:44 margin across the line to win in 4 hours, 7 minutes, 26 seconds with an average speed of 37.2 km/h. It was the second stage-win this year for “El Chava” and the fourth mountain stage victory for ibanesto.com in as many climbing stages.
“This one I will enjoy more,” said Jimenez. “Today I attacked with a lot of enthusiasm and the fans fed me along the climb. Cycling is my life. Sometimes I’m good, other times I’m not, but I’ve been sick this season and nothing comes easy in cycling.”
With Jimenez clean off the front, Heras accelerated with 6 km to go that split the lead group in a decisive attack. Heras’ attack eliminated Kelme’s Santiago Botero, Euskaltel’s David Mayo, Cofidis’ David Millar and ONCE’s Igor Galdeano, who started the day fourth, ninth, tenth and eleventh overall, respectively.
Botero fell to seventh, Mayo kept ninth but lost time, Millar fell to 19th while Galdeano kept 11th but lost time as well.
The defending Vuelta champion, however, still couldn’t put down a major attack to gain back time he desperately needs. Following Heras to the finish were Fernando Escartin of Coast, Aitor Osa and Juan Miguel Mercado of iBanesto.com, Sevilla, Claus Moller of Maia and Angel Casero of Festina.
“I hoped for more today. I am still hopeful but I lack the spark in my terrain in these mountains,” said Heras, who finished fourth and moved up to fifth overall at 2:33 back. “I am recuperating well, but I wonder if I am more tired from my efforts at the Tour de France.”
U.S. Postal’s Leipheimer struggled to follow Heras’ acceleration and faded in the final four kilometres. Postal teammate Rubiera dropped back to help tow Leipheimer across the line in 11th at 2:31 behind Jimenez. Leipheimer lost 47 seconds to the Heras-Sevilla group, but moved up to fourth overall at 2:27 back.
“I could tell from the start that my legs weren’t feeling as good as other days. I felt blocked, but I can’t complain. I didn’t have such a bad day like Beloki did,” said Leipheimer. “I felt good at Envalira and I really felt the altitude there, but no one was really zippy there either.”
Leipheimer tipped his hat to Rubiera, who sacrificed his own chances to help the 27-year-old stay in contention in his Vuelta debut. At the finish, Rubiera was yelling back to the struggling Leipheimer, “Go, go, go!”
“That was huge help. He was trying to set the pace but he was too strong for me,” Leipheimer said. “He kept slowing down to wait for me. It was awesome for a rider of his caliber to wait for me like that.”
Thursday’s 17-km (10.5-mile) climbing time trial takes the riders up the steep climb to Arcalis, the same climb where Jan Ullrich took command of the 1997 Tour de France.
Leipheimer hopes his legs will respond and he could move into the top-three if he has a strong ride. The time trial starts flat for the opening 7.7 kilometres then climbs 800 meters (2,640 feet) over the final nine kilometres.
Race leader Sevilla says his top rival now is Casero, who’s been riding solidly throughout the Vuelta and is second overall at 37 seconds back.
“This race is still very wide open. The team demonstrated that we are strong, but tomorrow is another day, very difficult,” Sevilla said. “The time trialists always have an advantage but tomorrow is a steep climb, so I have my chances. It will be difficult.”
Vuelta a España, stage 10, Sept. 19, Alp, Spain to Pal, Andorra
1. Jose Maria Jimenez (Sp), iBanesto.com, 154 kilometers in 4 hours, 8 minutes, 28 seconds, (37.236 kph); 2. Fernando Escartin (Sp), Coast, at 1:44; 3. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), iBanesto.com, s.t.; 4. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.; 5. Aitor Osa (Sp), iBanesto.com, s.t.; 6. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, s.t.; 7. Angel Casero (Sp), Festina, s.t.; 8. Klaus Moller (Den), Maia, s.t.; 9. Inigo Cuesta (Sp), Cofidis, at 2:10.; 10. Jose Luis Rubiera (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:31; 11. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.;70. Joseba Beloki (Sp), ONCE, at 19:55.
Twelve riders abandoned, including Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno) and Paolo Savoldelli (Saeco). 158 riders remain in the race.
Overall standings after 11 stages
1. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, 36:56:21; 2. Angel Casero (Sp), Festina, at 0:37; 3. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), iBanesto.com, at 1:46; 4. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:27; 5. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:33; 6. David Plaza (Sp), Festina, at 3:00; 7. Santiago Botero (Col), Kelme, at 3:06; 8. Jose Maria Jimenez (Sp), iBanesto.com, at 3:34; 9. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel, at 4:04; 10. Aitor Osa (Sp), iBanesto.com, at 4:32.