By Andrew Hood
The opening prologue at the Ruta de Sol was a win for the little guys against the big guns.
With such marquee names as Cadel Evans and Thomas Dekker (Silence-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) debuting their respective 2009 campaigns, it was unsung rider Xavier Tondo who came up big in Sunday’s 7.2km opening prologue for his locally sponsored Andalucía-CajaSur team.
Tondo was a bundle of nerves when he crossed the line after posting the fastest time of 8 minutes, 31 seconds, knocking Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) out of the hot seat by a half-second.
Tondo had a tortuous wait as the final top riders cut across the line, each a bigger star than Tondo, but each one a few seconds slower than the gangly Spanish rider. When defending champion and last-starting Pablo Lastras (Caisse d’Epargne) crossed the line, Tondo yelped in delight.
“This is a really important victory for our team. We trained hard all winter to do well here because this race, along with the Vuelta a España, is the most important of the year for us,” Tondo said. “We really wanted to do something and now we’ve started off in the best possible manner.”
Some of those big names are already flying, getting ready for important early season goals and the spring classics.
Lastras was fifth, just five seconds off the pace, while Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) stopped the clock in sixth in 8:37. Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni), always a favorite for the spring classics, rode well to finish eighth in 8:41.
Evans, who won a stage here last year to kick start his 2008 season, rode to 43rd at 9:00.
“I’ll be ready to race later this week,” Evans said before the start. “There was some bad weather in Switzerland. It was a big difference from Australia, where it was 35C, to winter.”
Sun and warm, spring-like weather welcomed the pack for the five-day Vuelta a Andalucía, a traditional warm-up and favorite among the peloton looking for a break from nasty European winter weather.
Olympic gold medalist Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) said he’s not expecting too much in his second race of the season.
“I’m here to accumulate racing kilometers. I already started my season in Mallorca and here in Andalucía, I have to continue my progression,” he said. “I like the route they’ve prepared for this edition and I am sure it will be interesting for the fans. Paris-Nice is my first goal this year and I have to gain some good form for the first week of March.”
The Ruta continues Monday with the 169.2km first stage from La Guardia de Jaén to Humilladero. The stage rolls through Jaén’s spectacular olive groves and features two third-category climbs in the second half, but should serve up an opportunity for the sprinters if there’s agreement among the bigger teams to control any breaks.