By Andrew Hood
The three-day battle of the Pyrénées is over and Kelme’s Oscar Sevilla walked away standing tall in the overall leader’s jersey.
There were no major shake-ups in the overall standings in 12th stage of the 2001 Vuelta a España, a 17-km (10.5-mile) climbing time trial Thursday to Arcalis, deep in the heart of the Andorran Pyrenees.
The top-four riders in the overall maintained their positions but defending Vuelta champion Roberto Heras (U.S. Postal Service) slipped to sixth as stage-winner Jose Maria Jimenez (ibanesto.com) continues his steady climb in the g.c.
Jimenez won his third mountain stage of this Vuelta and moved up from eighth to fifth overall at 2:50 behind Sevilla.
“I came to this Vuelta to win stages. That was my objective. This is a complicated Vuelta a España and I don’t know what to think about my chances to win,” said Jimenez, after winning in 36 minutes, 38 seconds. “There are two more mountain stages and I have the hope to win them. After that we will see what happens.”
U.S. Postal Service came out of the mountains in solid, but not spectacular position. Heras continues to struggle to find winning form while Vuelta sensation Levi Leipheimer retained his fourth place overall with a strong fifth-place time trial 36 seconds slower than Jimenez. Jose Luis Rubiera had an excellent time trial, finishing third at 31 seconds slower and moved up from 12th to ninth overall at 5:27 back.
”The race is not over. We still have two mountaintop finishes and we have three guys that are good position. We hope to have chances with any of them,” said Johan Bruyneel, director of the U.S. Postal Service.
Leipheimer continues to shine in his first stab at a three-week stage race. The 27-year-old was strong again on the difficult, first-category race against the clock on a cool, cloudy day.
Leipheimer started slow and wasn’t among the top-10 in the first time check at 7 km. He gained his tempo and posted the fifth-fastest time check at 13 km. Leipheimer gained time on third-place Juan Miguel Mercado (ibanesto.com) and is just 17 seconds behind the Spanish rider.
Heras shook his head in disgust after finishing at disappointing 15th at 1:06 slower. Heras failed to gain the time he needed on his rivals in these three consecutive climbing stages and enters the second half of the Vuelta at 2:55 back.
“Roberto did the best he could. After the Tour, he had some problems and his preparation wasn’t the best,” said Bruyneel. “When you try to force things, you have to finally come to the conclusion. In a time trial like this, you have to pay the price.”
Spain’s ibanesto.com continues to dominate the Vuelta’s mountain stages, winning each of the five mountaintop-finishing stages contested thus far in Vuelta. The team also stands atop the team competition.
Race leader Sevilla finished seventh at 44 seconds slower and widened his lead to 41 seconds over second-place Angel Casero (Festina). The young Kelme rider said he didn’t expect to gain time on Casero, considered a much stronger time trialist.
“We have to be content. In a tough climbing time trial like this, this is not my terrain. To maintain the jersey today is very satisfying,” said Sevilla, who took the lead from ONCE’s Joseba Beloki on Wednesday. “I still think the Vuelta will come down to the last week. Whoever has the strength and the recuperation will be able to win. There’s still a lot of Vuelta left.”
Friday’s and Saturday’s stages are relatively easy before Sunday’s difficult climbing stage to Alto de Aitana, high above the Mediterranean Sea. Riders who aren’t in top form can lose huge amounts of time on the punishing, beyond-category climb.
The 21-stage, 1851-mile 56th Vuelta a España continues Friday with the 206-km (128-mile) 13th stage from Andorra to Port Aventura, an amusement park south of Barcelona. The stage features three rated climbs – a category-three climb at 65 km, a category-three climb at 133 km and a category-two climb at Coll de Lilla at 165 km – before dropping to sea level.
Vuelta a España, stage 12, Sept. 20, individual time trial, Arcalis, Andorra
Jose Maria Jimenez (Sp), iBanesto.com, 17 kilometers in 36 minutes, 28 seconds, 28.007 kph; 2. Carlos Sastre (Sp), ONCE, 37:06; 3. Jose Luis Rubiera (Sp), U.S. Postal Service, 37:37; 4. Aitor Garmendia (Sp), Coast, 37:40; 5. Levi Leipheimer (USA), U.S. Postal Service, 37:43; 6. Roberto Laiseka (Sp), Euskaltel, 37:48; 7. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, 37:51; 8. Angel Casero (Sp), Festina, 37:55; 9. Alberto Perez (Sp), Panaria, 37:58; 10. Antonio Tauler (Sp), Kelme, 38:02.
Overall standings after 12 stages
1. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), Kelme, 37:33:43; 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