By Andrew Hood
Rafael Casero´s been on podiums before during his three-year pro career, but he´s never been on the podium wearing a race leader’s jersey or as a stage-winner.
Typically, Casero will get the day’s best points jersey or best climber’s jersey after a long break that falls short. In Wednesday’s difficult three-climb 159km second stage of the Vuelta Ciclista a Communidad Valencia, however, he had the top spot.
In fact, he pretty much hogged the podium celebration. Not only did he win the stage and take the race lead by 4 seconds over Dario Frigo, the Fassa Bortolo rider who won Tuesday’s opening time trial, Casero also grabbed the best climber’s jersey and the points jersey.
Casero’s dramatic stage-win also counts as the first victory of the year by a minor Spanish team. His modest Paternina squad rarely races outside of Spain and, even in Spain; victories are few and far between. Last year, the team only won six races.
“This is such a great win,” Casero said after finishing 41 seconds ahead of a group of 32 chasing riders. “I attacked so early and normally I get caught, which sometimes is so frustrating. But you keep trying and today it finally worked.”
Casero attacked just 7km into the three-climb stage. Joining him where Rafael Mateos and JM Cuenca and away they went. With two Category 1 climbs awaiting what seemed like a shell-shocked peloton, no one seemed to interested in mounting a serious chase. Many here are complaining that the mountainous parcours is much too difficult for so early in the season.
When the trio´s lead was more than 10 minutes, Fassa Bortolo organized a chase group. Joining them were nearly the entire Milaneza-MSS team, four from Cofidis, last year´s winner Alex Zülle and two dozen Spanish riders.
Casero topped out alone on the second pass of the cat-one Alto de Tudons, but his lead was under two minutes with 25km to go and it looked like Casero was going to fall short yet again. Domina Vacanze, Milaneza, Rabobank and Cofidis all took turns to try to bring him back.
Casero had just enough gas in the tank to score the win. He was so busy celebrating in the finishing stretch that he almost blew his chance to take the overall leading, starting the day 37 seconds arrears of Frigo.“Today we get more than we could ever ask,” said Paternin’s sport director Juan Martinez. “What ´Rafa´ did was very hard. I thought he would make it in the end, but I didn’t want to believe it until it finally happened.”The lead group of 32 chases included all the top finishers in Tuesday’s time trial save Rene Andrle from ONCE. Frigo, Alex Zülle (Coast), David Millar and Andre Kivilev (Cofidis), Danilo Di Luca (Saeco) and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) were among the top names in the first group. Quick Step’s David Canada led a group of four chasers across at 1:22 back while Richard Virenque (Quick Step) led a group of 23 at 5:08 back. Americans Bobby Julich (Telekom) and Guido Trenti (Fassa Bortolo) came in with a group at 25:24 back.The race continues Thursday with another difficult stage, 157km from Castella to Puerto de Sagunto with the category-one Alto de Garbi about 40km from the finish along the Med.Stage 2, Vuelta Ciclista a Communidad Valenciana, Feb. 26, Castalla to Vilajoyosa
1. Rafael Casero (Sp), Paternina,159.7km in 3:49:48, (39.8 kph)
2. Bram de Groot (Ned), Rabobank, at 0:41
3. Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Domina Vacanze, 4. David Millar (GBr), Cofidis
5. Angel Edo (Sp), Milanza-MSS
6. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Saeco
7. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp), Kelme
8. Angel Vicioso (Sp), ONCE
9. Iñigo Landaluce (Sp), Euskaltel
10. Ricard Serrano (Sp), Labarca 2, all s.t.Overall after two stages
1. Rafael Casero (Sp-Paternina) 4:01:23
2. Dario Frigo (I), Fassa Bortolo, at 0:04
3. Alex Zülle (Swi), Coast, at 0:09
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 Benabeu (Sp), Milaneza-MSS, at 0:17
8. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp), Kelme, at 0:17.
9. Xavier Florencio (Sp), ONCE, at 0:24
10. Jan Hruska (Cze), ONCE, at 0:27.