By Andrew Hood
The first mountain stage of any grand tour typically reveals who won’t win, thinning out the pretenders from the contenders.
But after Wednesday’s 160-km (99-mile) climbing stage to Lagos de Covadonga, a beyond-category finish high in Spain’s Picos de Europa, the only thing that was clear is that it would probably be a Spanish rider atop the winner’s podium in Madrid when the Vuelta ends Sept. 30.
Thirteen Spanish riders filled out the top of the leader board at the end of the Vuelta’s fifth day, with Tour de France revelation Oscar Sevilla holding a narrow 15-second lead over Wednesday’s stage-winner Juan Miguel Mercado.
Beyond that, in typical Vuelta fashion, the race remains wide open.
No one could deliver an Armstrong-like knockout blow in the first mountain stage of the 21-stage Vuelta.
With six more summit finishes and three time trials still to go, less than two minutes separate Kelme’s Sevilla from 13th-placeJose Maria Jimenez (ibanesto.com).
Defending Vuelta champion Roberto Heras finds himself comfortably in fifth-place, 1:06 back despite struggling to counter Sevilla’s blistering attack with four kilometers to go.
Mercado, another young Spanish face to crop up this year with a big overall victory at Vuelta a Burgos in August, attacked off the lead group of contenders with 8 km to go up the winding 13-km climb to the lakes. The ibanesto.com rider held the lead unchallenged across the tape to win his first Vuelta stage in 4:18:37 with an average speed of 37.306 kph.
“This is the greatest day in my career and it’s important for the team to demonstrate that we are still a power to contend with in cycling,” said Mercado, who comes from the Andalucia region of southern Spain.
Heras had excellent support from Levi Leipheimer and Jose Luis Rubiera in the long climb. Leipheimer, coming into his own in his second year racing in Europe, led the lead group up the first half of the climb. Rubiera come on late in the stage to help Heras who struggled when Sevilla punched the accelerator.
Sevilla attacked hard with 4 km and only Joseba Beloki could follow, but the ONCE rider couldn’t match the young Sevilla’s pace in the closing kilometers. Sevilla finished second at 33 seconds back and Beloki third at 58 seconds back.
“All is not lost. I lost my rhythm when Sevilla attacked and went at my own pace to recuperate,” a calm Heras said after finishing ninth in the stage and moving into fifth overall at 1:06 back.” I am content after the first mountains of the race. There are many more mountain stages to go, so nothing is over yet. I am very content with the strength of the team, especially with Chechu and Levi.”
Sevilla takes over the race lead from Kelme’s co-leader Santiago Botero, who’s endured a cough since the race start and suffered on the long climb and dropped out of the top-10 overall.
“This is a very key moment of my career. I’ve dreamed of having the leader’s jersey in the Vuelta, like all Spanish riders,” a beaming Sevilla said. “It’s important for the team to the keep the jersey.”
Oh, yeah. What of those guys who won’t be winning the Vuelta? Well, there was a lot of cleaning on the steeps to Covadonga. Alex Zülle (Coast), Richard Virenque (Domo), Gilberto Simoni (Lampre), Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno) and Abraham Olano (ONCE) all suffered and fell at least 5 minutes back in the g.c.
Cofidis’ David Millar, who fell from second to 28th overall, said he would save his strength for Friday’s individual time trial at Torrelavega.
Lars Michaelson (Coast), injured in a crash yesterday, didn’t start the stage.
The 21-stage, 2,986-km (1,851-mile) 56thVuelta a España continues Thursday with the sixth stage, 180 km (112 miles) from Cangas de Onis to Torrelavega. The course features three category-two climbs and a category-three climb in the final half of the stage as it winds along the foothills of northern Spain.