By Andrew Hood
Javier Pascual Llorente hardly even raced in 2002, missing eight months after succumbing to mononucleosis. The Kelme rider is certainly making up for lost time in the opening weeks of the 2003 season, already winning the “queen’s stage” and the overall title at Ruta del Sol and finishing third on the podium at last week’s Tour of Valencia.
On Thursday, he added more hardware to his already bursting trophy shelf, winning the difficult 153km climbing stage to the Category 1 finish at Cresto del Gallo and jumping into the overall lead of the Tour of Murcia.
Llorente attacked off the lead group of riders with just under 3km to go up the steep, narrow climb to the Cresta del Gallo, an impressive mountain towering above sunny Murcia in southeastern Spain. Euskaltel´s Haimar Zubeldia did good work grabbing Llorente´s wheel, but the Kelme rider was clearly the strongest and dropped his Spanish rival in the closing meters.
“Everything went as well as it could,” Llorente said after a long session on the podium. “The day was planned and there was an agreement between the team. If Valverde was going well, he’s had the freedom to go for the stage win and the overall, and the same was true for me.”
With the move, Zubeldia moves into second overall with eyes on final victory. The Euskaltel rider is a strong time trialist who could bounce into the overall lead in Sunday’s final race against the clock if he can stay close in Friday’s and Saturday’s difficult climbing stages.
“I realize Pascual is going strong now and I wanted to drop him before the finish, but it was obvious he was the strongest” said Zubeldia. “If I can stay close in the mountain stages, I might have some chance of winning it Sunday. I’m not 100 percent yet, but I come with a lot of motivation because our team is looking to make an impression on the Tour de France.”
Llorente´s Kelme teammate Alejandro Valverde jumped into third overall
An early attack that included Postie Steffan Kaergaard was quickly checked before Paternina´s Diaz Labato went alone at 15km into the race, but was gobbled up by the main pack with about 10km to go.
Lance Armstrong, meanwhile, enjoyed a tranquilo day on the bike following all the excitement in his season debut on Wednesday. Armstrong rode quietly in the middle of the pack and rode at his own pace up Cresta del Gallo to finish 41st at 1:26.
U.S. Postal´s Victor Hugo Peña, a winner here last year, couldn’t match the explosive pace and came across in 34th, 1:16 back. Postal director Johan Bruyneel said he’s reminding all his riders to stay focused on the business at hand.”We start this season like any other. Everyone is talking about four Tours, five Tours, but I insist that we start this season just as the same as the past and stay focused on the race,” Bruyneel said. “We have to think about what we want to achieve, not what we have already done in the past.”The UCI “vampire squad” wrested 53 riders out of bed early for blood tests, including riders from Kelme, ONCE, iBanesto.com, Gerolsteiner, Lampre, Sidermec and U.S. Postal Service. All the riders were declared “fit” to race.The five-day Tour of Murcia continues Friday with the 160km third stage, a circuit course at Caravaca, featuring a Category 3 climb at 23km, a difficult Category 1 climb at 110km and a fast finish into Caravaca.Stage 2, Alguazas to Cresta del Gallo
1. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp), Kelme, 153km in 3:47:43, (40.5 kph)
2. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel, at 0:03
3.Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Kelme, at 0:10
4. Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Sp), iBanesto.com, same time
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Telekom, at 0:15
6. Leonardo Piepoli (I), iBanesto.com, at 0:16
7. Vladimir Belli (I), Lampre, at 0:21
8. Jose Luis Martinez (Sp), Paternina, at 0:23
9. Santi Blanco (Sp), Relax, at s.t
10. Juan Carlos Dominguez (Sp), Phonak, s.t.OTHERS20. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, at 0:42
41. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 1:26
95. Michael Barry (Can), U.S. Postal Service, at 5:37
99. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t
123. David Zabriskie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, s.t.Overall after two stages
1. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp), Kelme, 7:45:42
2. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel, at 0:07
3. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Kelme, at 0:10
4. Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Sp), iBanesto.com, 0:20
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Telekom, at 0:25
6. Leonardo Piepoli (I), iBanesto.com, at 0:26
7. Vladimir Belli (I), Lampre, at 0:31
8. Juan Carlos Dominguez (Sp), Phonak, at 0:33
9. Jose Luis Martinez (Sp), Paternina, at s.t.
10. Santi Blanco (Sp), Relax, at s.t
19. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, at 0:52
42. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 1:35
93. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 5:47
99. Michael Barry (Can), U.S. Postal Service, at 5:47
124. David Zabriskie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 8:33