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By Andrew Hood
It’s called the Ruta del Sol – the Race of the Sun – but rain was one of the main protagonists in the opening stage of the Vuelta Ciclista a Andalucía, which saw Tour de France favorite Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) kick start his season.
Despite the presence of big-time sprinters such as Alessandro Petacchi (Milram), two relatively unknown riders chugged away from the peloton in the early going of the rainy 123.4km stage from Benahavis to Alora across the hills near Malaga.
José Antonio López Gil gave his locally sponsored Andalucía-CajaSur team the double, winning the stage and taking a solid lead over the main pack.
López, 31, pulled away with Clement Lhotellerie (Skil-Shimano) and the pair worked together to open up a maximum gap of six minutes before the peloton awakened from its Spanish siesta a little too late.
Pablo Lastras (Caisse d’Epargne) counter-attacked alone through intermittent showers with about 25km to go, but the leading pair still had enough rope to finish off the deed.
López, who was born in nearby Malaga, used his knowledge of local roads to his advantage and dropped his escape companion on a steep hill near the finish to solo home the victory.
The jubilant López now holds a nine-second lead on Lhotellerie, with the chasing Lastras at 1:51 back. Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step) led the main pack through at 3:31 back.
Lastras was the only rider willing to take a risk through strong winds and rain, and although he failed to catch the attacking leaders, he put himself in good position to secure a final spot on the podium for the five-day race.
“I felt good after the Tour Down Under and the Mallorca Challenge, so I wanted to take advantage of my good form,” Lastras said. “The indecision of the peloton to chase or not prompted my decision to attack with 25km to go. Someone had to take responsibility and I was hoping to bridge up to the other two. I regained some time and we’ll see how the week unfolds. I would love to finish on the final podium of the Andalucía tour.”
Evans, who is racing for the first time this season, finished in the main pack with Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who is also seeing his first action of the 2008 campaign.
The 54th Vuelta a Andalucía-Ruta del Sol continues Monday with the 176km second stage from Torrox Costa to La Zubia, tackling four rated climbs before pushing toward La Zubia near Granada.