By Andrew Hood
Kelme´s Santiago Botero got revenge Friday in the hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and regained the overall lead of the 56th Vuelta a España after a blistering victory in the 44-km individual time trial.
The Colombian won his first stage of this year’s Vuelta after finishing second twice to Cofidis´ David Millar. Pre-race pick Millar was not in peak form, finishing 8th, but American Levi Leipheimer continued to surprise the Europeans with another electrifying ride, finishing second on the hilly, technical course just 29 seconds behind Botero.
“I normally start slow in a time trial and build my rhythm over the course and that’s what happened today,” said Leipheimer, who moved to seventh overall at 2:42 behind Botero. “I felt really good on the second half as I opened up. When I got through with the fastest time I had my heart set on winning. I didn’t scab any corners and miss any gear changes, but Botero was the fastest. I would have hate to have lost by 3 or 5 seconds, but 29 seconds, you have to tip your hat to that.”
The course was harder than it looked. A cat-three climb at 33km forced every rider out of his saddle. Botero was fastest at each time split and roared over the course, grinding his big gear with determination.
Botero took the overall lead Tuesday from Millar, who beat Botero by 1 second in the opening time trial in Salamanca, but forfeited the lead when he lost more than 3 minutes as he struggled up the climb to Lagos de Covadonga on Wednesday. On Thursday, Millar beat Botero yet again but the pair earned back nearly a minute during the successful break to put the bearded Colombian in position to retake the maillot oro.
“I really wanted to win today. I was so close to winning a stage and Millar had me each time. It was important that I earned back some time (Thursday) so I could have a chance to take the jersey,” said Botero, who won in 55 minutes, 9 seconds, with an average speed of 48.1 km/h.
Botero regains the “maillot oro” from Kelme teammate Oscar Sevilla, who rode the most surprising ride of the day. Sevilla, known more for his climbing abilities than his strength against the clock, finished sixth in the stage, just one second behind Joseba Beloki at 1:26 back.
Sevilla, the best young rider at this year’s Tour, gladly passed the leader’s jersey to Botero and looks ahead to battling to regain it in the Pyrenees next week.
“We are very content with a lot of morale with an incredible amount of confidence,” Sevilla said, now second overall at 21 seconds back. “Botero has recovered and we will fight to keep the jersey. The real battle begins in the Pyrenees.”
Festina’s David Plaza and Angel Casero finished fourth and fifth, respectively, while Beloki, who started the day in third, rode a disappointing fifth place and dropped to fourth overall.
“I thought I would have a chance to take the lead today, but I didn’t have good sensations. We are still in strong position but it’s a disappointment today, for sure,” Beloki said.
Defending Vuelta champion Roberto Heras could only muster 19th at 3:05 back and fell to 8th overall. Leipheimer says the Posties aren’t worried, even though Heras struggled on the beyond-category climb to Covadonga when many were expecting a stage-victory.
“He doesn’t have anything to worry about with Botero, who lost 3 minutes at Covadonga. Sevilla is now our top rival. He’s young, so he might have a bad day,” Leipheimer said. “It’s still doable for Roberto. Tomorrow’s climb isn’t super-super hard. It’s certainly not as hard as Covadonga. The real shake up will be in the Pyrenees, where you’ll see guys lose lots of time.”
Saturday’s eighth stage goes 195km from Reinosa to the category-one finish at Alto de la Demanda, a long 18-km climb high over the Spanish plains. Sunday’s long flat stage will be a chance for stage-hunters before the real fireworks begin with three consecutive climbing stages in the Pyrenees early next week following Monday’s rest day.