By Andrew Hood
The real battle for the Vuelta a España unfolded seven kilometers from the summit of La Cobertoria in Sunday’s ninth stage when the Kazakh tandem of Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin darted out of the main bunch in a daring heist.
Only an explosive counter-attack by Alejandro Valverde with two kilometers saved the day for the Spanish armada. Valverde grabbed the race leader’s gold jersey and Vinokourov hung on to win the stage, setting up what’s likely going to be the dominant battle for the remainder of the Vuelta.
“The Kazakhs are going to be the most dangerous rivals,” Valverde said in a press conference on Monday’s rest day. “The most important thing was to get the lead and I did it. Now we have a relatively flat week and it’s a good time to have the jersey. Vinokourov is going better and Kashechkin is strong. The Kazakhs can play both cards and without ignoring anyone else, they are the most dangerous.”
The Vuelta peloton enjoyed its first of two rest days Monday after what’s been a wild first week of the 61st edition of the Spanish tour.
Valverde grabbed his first career Vuelta race leader’s jersey by 27 seconds over Kashechkin and another 44 seconds to Carlos Sastre (CSC) with Pais Vasco winner Jose Angel Marchante (Saunier Duval) at 56 seconds back. Vinokourov is within striking distance at 1:38 back.
“I am feeling better and better and I am not discounting trying to win this Vuelta,” Vinokourov said. “We will try to put either Andrey or myself into the leader’s jersey, but we might have to wait a few days.”
In the opening nine days of racing, the Vuelta saw four lead changes (Sastre, Hushovd, Brajkovic and Valverde), three mountain-top finishes, a team time trial and some very exciting racing.
Valverde and the Kazakhs have pulled ahead as the clear favorites for overall victory, with Sastre and Marchante poised to move up if they take a misstep.
“I think it’s going to be between those four,” said Discovery Channel boss Johan Bruyneel, referring to the leading four without Marchante. “Sastre is still strong. All it takes is one bad day and everything can change. There is still a lot of Vuelta left – two time trials and three mountain stages. This race is not over.”
Bruyneel expressed satisfaction with how his Discovery Channel team has responded, especially in Sunday’s climbing stage when five riders were with the final group at the base of La Cobertoria.
Janez Brajkovic – the 22-year-old Slovenian sensation – might have lost the race lead to the more experienced Valverde, but Bruyneel only had good things to say about the young prospect.
“He’s too young to win the Vuelta and we already knew that,” he said. “What he showed is that he’s a great talent for the future.”
Concerning Tom Danielson, who struggled in the first two mountain stages but rode stronger in support of Brajkovic on Sunday, Bruyneel said Danielson can still finish in the top 10.
“We thought he could be in the top 5 in this Vuelta, but he lost too much time in the first two mountain stages,” he said. “He was stronger Sunday, but when you have the race leader’s jersey, you have to do everything to get your leader to the finish. I still think he can finish in the top 10.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the riders with the freshest legs – Valverde, Vinokourov and Kashechkin – did not race the Tour de France. Sastre seems to be showing fatigue after starting what’s his fifth consecutive grand tour.
“Carlos just didn’t have that spark he needed to follow Valverde,” said Team CSC’s sport director Kim Andersen. “Carlos is satisfied. He finished the first week with still options for victory. The team is strong and Carlos is motivated.”
Back in the saddle again
The Vuelta kicks back into gear Tuesday to open a week of relatively moderate transition stages pushing east across the northern coast before driving south across Spain’s meseta country toward the Mediterranean for what will be the decisive final week.
Still, this is not a week to completely relax. Tuesday’s 199km hilly route along Spain’s lush Asturias region cannot be overlooked and Wednesday’s 173km stage crosses the steep Cantabrian Mountains before a fast finish into Burgos.
American Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) said his form is on the rise and promises to attack.
“I’d like to try to win a stage and there are a few stages in the second week that look good for me,” Horner said. “The legs are coming around and it’s a matter of finding that right breakaway. So far, the breaks haven’t been working so good.”
Two more relatively flat stages push the race into Cuenca for the first of two time trials on Saturday with the 33.2km 14th stage that tackles a Cat. 3 climb midway through the route.
Valverde said he’s getting better and better in the time trial in what used to be his handicap.
“The distances are good for me and there’s a climb on the Cuenca route that favors me. I hope I can respond,” said Valverde, adding that the team isn’t overlooking this week’s stages. “These stages are sometimes as hard as the mountains. We will have to work with the sprinter teams to not let allow dangerous breakaways. You want to be on the front to avoid crashes. It won’t be easy.”
The remaining 171 riders enjoyed the first of two rest days Monday along Spain’s northern coast. Forty-nine riders from Euskaltel, Astana, Saunier Duval, Cofidis, Discovery Channel and Davitamon-Lotto got a wakeup call as the UCI “vampires” arrived for early morning blood checks. All were cleared.