By Andrew Hood
Michael Rasmussen’s big win in Friday’s seventh stage of the Vuelta a España further reinforces his belief that he made the right decision to leave behind mountain bike racing at the end of the 2000 season and take a chance on the road.
While bigger names such as Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez have garnered more attention in their transition from fat to skinny tires, Rasmussen’s proven the most successful.
He scored a big victory in the “queen’s stage” of the 2002 Tour of Burgos and capped his conversion with the historic win Friday.
“This is the Formula 1 of bicycle racing. It’s the best racers in the world,” Rasmussen said of road racing. “I’m faster than I’ve ever been before and I’m more confident. Last year was bit of a learning year and I gained a lot of confidence and now I’m doing all the races for a second time. Last year I didn’t know what to expect at San Sebastian and Zurich (World Cup races) and this year I was right there.”
Rasmussen had a solid season warm up, but was left off Rabobank’s Tour de France team for what he called a politic decision.
“There was a lot of politics with that decision. There was pressure to have more Dutch riders on the team. I suffered for that,” he said. “I wasn’t left off the team for any lack of results or fitness.”
Despite losing ground in Thursday’s windy time trial, Rasmussen bounced nicely into ninth overall and is now Rabobank’s sole leader with Levi Leipheimer struggling to find his form.
“The team started with the goal to have two riders in the top 10 and to win a stage. Now we’ve got the stage win,” Rasmussen said. “I think after today we can see that finishing in the top 10 is a possibility.”
<Leipheimer hoping to rebound for stage win
It’s something of an understatement to say that Levi Leipheimer’s Vuelta a España hasn’t exactly gone the way he had hoped.
Pressured to race the Vuelta by his Rabobank team after crashing in the first stage at the Tour de France, Leipheimer said he didn’t have enough time to arrive at the Vuelta in top form.
“I needed a little bit more time to get ready or I needed the Vuelta to start easier than it did,” Leipheimer said after Friday’s stage. “I didn’t have much time after my crash to get ready. It’s not easy to try to rush your form.”
Worst still was a difficult Cat. 1 climb in the Vuelta’s second stage, when Leipheimer lost several minutes and dropped out of contention for a repeat of his breakthrough 2001 performance when he finished third overall.
“I wasn’t ready for that hard of a climb so early in the race. Two days later we had a category one climb and I felt pretty good,” he said.
Leipheimer worked himself into a nine-man break that got over the day’s second rated climb with a 2:18 gap on the main bunch, but were eventually reeled in on the Col d’Aubisque.
“I tried today, but with that head wind it didn’t work. I’m feeling better now, so we’ll see,” said Leipheimer. “I’ll just be looking for my opportunities. I’m hoping I’ll be better at the end of the Vuelta. There are some stages there that will be good for me.”
Leipheimer is more optimistic and wants to try to win a stage.
“Now I’m just going to try my focus and take it easy on the stages that suit me and go for stage wins,” he said.
Team CSC’s Carlos Sastre has his baby pacifier tucked away in the back of his jersey ready to pull out and pop in his mouth just like he did when he won a stage at the Tour de France.
Sastre, however, is suffering with a sore throat and has been taking antibiotics for three days.
“I started to feel bad in the rain in Santander (stage 3),” said Sastre, now 17th at 6:31 back. “When you’re suffering like this all you can do is take it day to day. Maybe I can feel better and still fight. I was hoping to be on the final podium.”
Forty riders from five teams were given health controls Friday morning before the start of the Vuelta’s seventh stage. None of the riders from Lampre, Phonak, Saeco, Milaneza and Paternina were ruled ineligible to start.
Petacchi hanging tough
Fassa Bortolo’s Alessandro Petacchi kept his promise that he’d stay in the Vuelta through the difficult mountain stages. So far, at least.
The Italian sprinter made his in Wednesday’s fifth stage when he became the first rider in history to win two or more stages in all three grand tours in the same year. Petacchi said he hopes to arrive to Madrid and keep the points jersey he own.
Petacchi survived Friday’s climbing stage, finishing 128th at 33:55 back. Other riders weren’t so lucky. CSC’s Julian Dean finished last at 181st at 45:10 back, but was eliminated because he finished out of the time limit.
Five riders – Francesco Secchiari (Domina Vacanze), Jan Svorada (Lampre), Cyril Dessel (Phonak), Frank Vandenbroucke (Quick Step) and Massimo Apollonio (Caldirola) – abandoned. With Dessel’s departure, only one French rider remains in the Vuelta – Quick Step’s Richard Virenque.
Two riders – Davide Frattini (Alessio) and Gerrit Glomser (Saeco) – were kicked out of the race.