By Andrew Hood
Saeco’s Igor Astarloa sprinted to victory in the third stage of the Tour of Valencia on Thursday, charging out of a lead group of 52 riders that finished in Puerto de Sagunto 30 minutes sooner than organizers had originally expected.
The lead group flew over a difficult three-climb stage and came into this industrial port ready for a sprint. Saeco teammate Santos Gonzalez put down a strong lead-out and Astarloa held out against compatriots Angel Edo (Milaneza-MSS) and Angel Vicioso (ONCE) to score his first win of the season.
“I was afraid that I might have gone too early, but I had a good ‘launch’ by Santos and I was in first position and I had the forces to win,” Astarloa said. “I’m very happy to get the win so early this season after some close calls.”
Astarloa, fourth overall in the World Cup last year, said he would be getting more support this year as Saeco hunts for a major classics victory.
“The team is really supporting me more this year so we’ll see how I do in the spring classics before deciding the rest of my season,” Astarloa said. “I might not put so much into the big tours if I’m going well in the World Cup and focus just on that.”
Not just Angel’s brother
And for a second day in a row, Rafael Casero enjoyed the spotlight as race leader, instead of simply being known as “the brother of Angel Casero …”
Casero didn’t have a contract until the end of January and finally got a deal with Paternina. On Thursday, he happily signed autographs and posed for pictures before the stage and finished 15th in the lead group to maintain his four-second lead over Dario Frigo.
“I trained for this all my life,” Casero said. “I’m very happy to arrive here in the leader’s jersey, I could never have imagined. We had to work hard today, but it’s worth it. If we lose the leadership tomorrow, well, I’ll still be very happy with this tour. If I have the best day tomorrow, maybe I can keep the jersey. We’ll give it everything.”
Before taking the start of Thursday’s stage, defending champion Alex Zülle downplayed his chances for a repeat. Zülle finished second in Tuesday’s time trial and came across with the first group Thursday to remain in third overall at nine seconds back.
“Frigo looks very strong and if he makes it through today’s stage okay he’ll be hard to beat,” Zülle said. “I didn’t feel so good yesterday even though I was in the lead group. It’s cold and these mountains are very difficult, so I don’t think I will be able to pull off the victory.”
Early in the stage, world champion Mario Cipollini stuck his nose out to win the first intermediate sprint at 30km, but took it easy after that. There are few chances to show off one’s sprinting prowess in this very mountainous edition of the Tour of Valencia and Cipollini is eyeing Saturday’s closing stage for a chance to go for a stage-win.
Ten riders made a move up the day’s first obstacle – the Cat 3. Alto de Alcudia de Veo at 45km – and built up a 1:54 lead at 50km. Fassa Bortolo’s Juan de los Angeles took the points while later Paternina’s Jose Luis Martinez was first over the category-one Alto de Eslida at 56km.
After a long descent back down to the flats lined with orange groves along the Mediterranean Sea, de los Angeles and Toni Colom (Relax) attacked off the front group at 100km while the peloton remained within striking distance.
The day’s toughest climb loomed at 123km – the Category 1 climb to Alto de Garbi at 2112 feet – but the break was reeled in by the lead chase group at 136km. After a long descent back to Sagunto, riders began attacking off the front but Saeco and Milaneza-MSS kept things together going into the finish.All the major contenders for final victory finished in the lead group and Friday’s difficult 159.2km fourth stage is sure to decide the final victor.The stage rolls south through the orange groves surrounding Valencia for the first 154km, but ends with a category-one summit finish at Alt de Campello. The stage climbs more than 300 meters in just three kilometers with ramps as steep as 14 percent. The final kilometer is nearly flat with a short punch at the finish line.Vuelta Ciclista a Communidad Valenciana
Feb. 27, 2003, Stage three, Onda to Puerto de Sagunto
1. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Saeco, 3:44:55, (42.042kph)
2. Angel Edo (Sp), Milanza-MSS, same time
3. Angel Vicioso (Sp), ONCE, s.t.
4. Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Domina Vacanze, s.t.
5. Bram DeGroot (Ned), Rabobank, s.t.
6. David Munoz (Sp), Kelme, s.t.
7. Ricardo Serrano (Sp), Labarca 2, s.t.
8. Marc Lotz (Ned), Rabobank, s.t.
9. Constantino Zaballa (Sp), Kelme, s.t.
10. Alexandre Moos (Swi), Phonak, s.t.
81. Bobby Julich (USA, Telekom), at 6:31
97. Guido Trenti (USA), Fassa Bortolo, at 14:21Overall after three stages:
1. Rafael Casero (Sp), Paternina, 7:46:18
2. Dario Frigo (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 0:04
3. Alex Zülle (Swi), Coast, at 9 seconds
4. Jorg Jaksche (G), ONCE, at 0:11
5. David Millar (GBr), Cofidis, at 0:12
6. Angel Vicioso (Sp), ONCE, at 0:17
7. David Bernabeu (Sp), Milaneza-MSS, at 0:19
8. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp), Kelme, s.t.
9. Xavier Florencio (Sp), ONCE, at 0:24
10. Jan Hruska (Cze), ONCE, at 0:27
93. Bobby Julich (USA), Telekom, at 32:00
121. Guido Trenti (USA), Fassa Bortolo, at 40:27