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By Andrew Hood
Danilo Napolitano nabbed yet another victory for the upstart Katusha team, this time in the first stage at the Vuelta a Andalucía/Ruta del Sol in Spain.
Thanks to a top-notch leadout from teammates Filippo Pozzato and Gert Steegmans, the brawny Italian sprinter easily out-kicked Tom Veelers (Skil-Shimano) to win the 169.2km first stage from La Guardía de Jaén to Humilladero.
Jurgen Roelandts (Silence-Lotto) came through third while overnight leader Xavier Tondo (Andalucía-CajaSur) finished out of the top-10 and forfeited the race leader’s jersey.
It’s the first win of the year for Napolitano, who comes into 2009 with new ambitions and a leaner fighting weight.
“To win with riders like Pozzato and Steegmans leading me out is easier. I can do the sprint in the best position without fighting with the other riders, so I have a lot more energy in the last 200 meters,” Napolitano said. “My condition is better than last year. My weight is down and I am faster. Now the main goal is to win as much as possible, starting with tomorrow!”
Despite a full quiver of sprinters on Katusha, the team seems to be sharing the spoils so far early in the season, with Steegmans and Robbie McEwen each taking sprint victories last week at the Mallorca Challenge.
Napolitano’s victory is the sixth for Katusha in a racing season that’s not even a month old.
Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) — who finished second to Tondo in Sunday’s opening prologue by less than a half-second — takes the lead by three seconds to Tondo, with Roelandts slotting into third at four seconds back.
The pack split in the final charge to the line, with the top nine riders crossing the line four seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Tondo finished in the main pack, but even with the home-roads advantage, race judges took the split and delivered the jersey to the Dutchman.
Four riders escaped at about 20km into the rolling stage. In the move were Luís Angel Maté (Diquigiovanni), Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel), Clement Lhotellerie (Vacansoleil) and Galpasoro (Contentpolis-AMPO). Josep Jufre (Fuji-Servetto) bridged out, but the gap never grew to more than four minutes.
Katusha, Andalucía-CajaSur and Ski-Shimano started to pull in earnest with 50km to go and the quintet was reeled in with less than 10km to go.
Spanish headbanger Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) tried to surprise the pack in the final 2km, but was caught by the main pack with just under 1km to go.
“I am feeling good coming into the season and maybe I can try to win a stage here,” Flecha said before the start. “I still have two months to be ready for the classics. That’s the first real goal for this year.”
The five-day Ruta del Sol continues Tuesday with the 164.2km second stage from Vegas del Genil to Córdoba.
The route starts at the base of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada and rolls northwest across the heart of Andalucía’s olive-growing region, which produces 10 percent of the world’s olive oil.
There’s a third-category climb at the Alto de Puerto Lope at 24.3km, but nothing to slow down the sprinters if they want to fight for the spoils coming into Córdoba, with a straight-shot finish down the aptly named Avenida de la Victoría (Victory Avenue).