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By Andrew Hood
There was no calm before the storm in Saturday’s transition stage along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast. Heavy rains pounded the peloton during the 170-km (105-mile) 14th stage from Tarragona to Vinaros on the eve of the difficult and decisive climbing stage to Alto de Aitana.
Lampre’s Juan Manuel Garate won his first-ever professional victory, easily beating iBanesto.com’s Jon Odriozola after the pair pulled away from a 14-man breakaway. Kelme’s Oscar Sevilla retained the overall lead, but racers were already thinking about Sunday’s long, steep climb to Alto de Aitana.
“It’s going to be a very selective climb. Any rider who has a bad day will lose a lot of time,” said Sevilla, after finishing safely in the lead bunch to maintain his 41-second lead over Festina’s Angel Casero.
All eyes are on Jose Maria Jimenez, the Spanish rider on ibanesto.com who has won three mountain stages so far and the only climber that has the explosiveness to rupture the race.
“We have to be more worried about Jimenez. He is not so far in the overall standings and we can’t let him get away so early in the stage,” said Vicente Belda, director of the Kelme team.
This will be the Vuelta debut of the Aitana climb, located on a Spanish military base where the final summit finish is closed to the public. The race passes Alto de Tudons twice at 3,300 feet. On the second pass, they hit the final 6.5-km climb with an average grade of 8.5 percent and finishes at 4,983 feet. Riders compare it to France’s Mont Ventoux, a high rocky summit without vegetation.
“We know the first part of the climb because we were training there in January. It’s dry, desolate, open and rocky,” said U.S. Postal’s Levi Leipheimer, who remains in fourth place overall at 2:19 back. “I want to stay with the top climbers. One of those guys could crack just like Beloki did the other day. If I can stay where I am in the g.c., I think the podium in Madrid looks very good.”
Sunday’s stage will be Leipheimer’s an important test in his effort to become the first American to finish on the Vuelta podium. He struggled up the final climb in Wednesday’s six-climb stage through the Pyrenees but bounced back in Thursday’s climbing time trial to move up to fourth.
“I’m feeling good. I was a little bit disappointed with my ride during the time trial because normally I have good communication with Dirk (Demol, assistant director at Postal), but as soon as I started I couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t know what the time splits were and that helps me a lot,” Leipheimer said. “It was a little bit old school.”
Waves of rain poured down on the racers during Saturday’s stage. Forecasters are calling for more heavy showers, strong winds and cool temperatures Sunday before sunny skies are expected to return for Tuesday’s stage to Murcia. Monday is the Vuelta’s second rest day.
Forty riders from U.S. Postal Service, Festina, Mapei, ONCE and Jazztel passed blood control before Saturday’s start, but ONCE’s Joseba Beloki did not start. Beloki lost his lead in Wednesday’s climbing stage and struggled with a chest infection.
After several failed attacks, 14 riders pulled off the front at 86 kilometers and held a wide gap all the way to the finish. Among the break were, Julian Dean (U.S. Postal Service), Alexander Shefer (Alessio), Jon Odriozola and Juan Carlos Dominguez (ibanesto.com), Tomas Konecny (Domo), Carlos Golbano (Jazztel), Mariano Piccoli and Garate (Lampre), Dario Cioni (Mapei), Jorg Jaksche (ONCE), Mark Lotz (Rabobank), Oscar Laguna (Relax-Fuenlabrada), Salvatore Commesso (Saeco) and Alberto Elli (Telekom).
Rain lightened during the middle of the stage and the break had a 7:10 gap at 146 kilometres. Garate and Dominguez attacked with six kilometers to go and held off the rest of the break as heavy rain started to fall again. Garate easily beat Dominguez while U.S. Postal’s Dean crossed the line third at 15 seconds back. David Fernandez , a Spanish rider on Relax-Fuenlabrada, led the bunch across at 9:44 back.
The 21-stage, 1,851-mile Vuelta a España continues Sunday with the 207-km (128-mile) 15th stage from Valencia to Alto de Aitana, the longest stage in the Vuelta. The stage is flat for the opening 80 kilometers as it rolls along the seashore and hits the first of four climbs with the category-two Coll de Rates at the 100-km mark. Racers hit two category-two climbs at the 148-km mark and the 160-km mark, respectively, before dropping to the base of the climb to Aitana, a beyond-category finish.
56th Vuelta a Espana, stage 14, Sept. 22, 170 kms (105 miles), Tarragona to Vinaros
1. Juan Manuel Garate (Sp), Lampre, 3 hours, 56 minutes, 8 seconds, 43.323 km/h; 2. Juan Carlos Dominguez (Sp), ibanesto.com, same time; 3. Julian Dean (NZ), U.S. Postal Service, at 15 seconds; 4. Marc Lotz (Ned), Rabobank, at 28 seconds; 5. Mariano Piccoli (I), Lampre, s.t.; 6. Salvatore Commesso (I), Saeco, s.t.; 7. Tomas Konecny (Czech), s.t.; 8. Jorg Jaksche (G), ONCE, s.t.; 9. Alberto Elli (I), Telekom, s.t.; 10. Jon Odriozola (Sp), iBanesto.com, s.t.
Joseba Beloki (ONCE), DNS; Michael Andersson (Mercatone Uno), DNF, 153 riders remain in peloton
Overall standings after 13 stages
1. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, 46:08:17; 2. Angel Casero (Sp), Festina, at 0:41; 3. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), iBanesto.com, at 2:02; 4. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:19; 5. Jose Maria Jimenez (Sp), iBanesto.com, at 2:50; 6. Roberto Heras (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, at 2:55; 7. David Plaza (Sp), Festina, at 3:17; 8. Santiago Botero (Col), Kelme, at 4:21; 9. Jose Luis Rubiera (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, at 5:27; 10. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel, at 5:32