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By Andrew Hood
David Millar continued on his winning ways Thursday, taking his second stage of the 56th Vuelta a España. Spain’s Oscar Sevilla of Kelme retained the overall lead in the speedy 180-km (112-mile) 6th stage from Cangas de Onis to Torrelavega that finished 25 minutes ahead of schedule.
But this time it wasn’t a prologue or even a time trial for the determined Cofidis rider. Millar proved he’s more than a one-trick pony, winning a fast, tough stage across the foothills of the Cantabria Mountains in northern Spain, holding off Kelme’s Santiago Botero in a two-up sprint.
“This proves I am one of the strongest riders here, maybe not in the highest mountains, but in every other aspect of the race,” said Millar, who won in 4 hours, 2 minutes, 36 seconds. “This is a big win for me because it shows I’m more than a time trialist. This Vuelta so far has exceeded all expectations.”
High speeds culled the lead group down to 90 riders over three consecutive category-two climbs in the last half of the stage. Selection was brutal as Kelme and ONCE drove the race. More than 60 riders finished in the gruppetto at 16:48 back, including Marco Pantani and Alex Zülle.
Seven riders sprung off the front of the lead group at the stage’s final meta volante, or hot sprint, with 29 km to go. Joining Millar were Cofidis teammate Inigo Cuesta, ONCE´s Jorg Jaksche and Mikel Zarrabeitia, Botero, Lampreys Massimo Codol and Festina Luis Perez.
Millar made the winning move on the final climb of the stage, the category-three Alto de San Cipriano, 13 km from the finish. Millar shot up the climb alone and only Botero could stay on his wheel. Telekom and Mapei, working hard to set up a rematch between star sprinters Erik Zabel and Oscar Freire, couldn’t catch the pair and the main bunch crossed the line 58 seconds later.
It was an odd view watching Millar and Botero go off against each other in the final meters. Millar, the gaunt time trialist, versus Botero, the strong climber. Neither are natural sprinters, but Millar pulled away from Botero and pumped his right fist in victory.
“This was a well-planned attack and Cuesta was very instrumental in the whole thing,” said Millar, who held the race lead for three days before losing it to Botero after a late-stage crash in Gijon in stage four. “I was a bit scared with Botero, because I know he’s a strong rider.”
Millar, who lost more than 4 minutes in Wednesday’s climb to Lagos de Covadonga, said he was intent on winning Thursday and has eyes for another victory in Friday’s 44-km individual time trial in Torrelavega.
“My objective is to win tomorrow. This won’t affect my time trial race and I hope to be at least in the top three,” said Millar, who moved up to 22nd overall at 2:49 behind Sevilla. “I really want to thank my teammates, especially Cuesta, who did a lot of work for me today.”
Botero, who also suffered at Lagos, losing the leader’s jersey to teammate Sevilla, moved up to 5th overall, tied with defending Vuelta champion Roberto Heras (U.S. Postal Service) at 1:06 back.
Freire was disappointed he couldn’t score a victory in front of his hometown crowd. Thousands turned out to watch on a track and field finishing oval what they hoped would have been another Zabel-Freire shootout. Zabel, who’s leading the points competition, pipped the former world champion at the line to take third in the stage as the main bunch came in.
“We knew this would be a hard stage to win because of the tough climbs,” Freire said. “We worked hard to try to recover the breakaway but it wasn’t meant to be. I really wanted to win today but Zabel looks to be the strongest.”
Sevilla admitted his chances to retain the overall lead in Friday’s individual time trial are slim. Even though the course features a category-three climb, Sevilla knows others are the favorites.
“Tomorrow is not my terrain. I am looking to limit my losses in the time trial and looking to the Pyrenees stages next week to have a chance to regain the lead,” said Sevilla, who finished safely in the main bunch. “This was a harder stage today than we expected. The tactic was to put Botero into a break to see if he could recover some of his time he lost at Lagos. Now he has a good chance to keep the jersey with the team.”
Favorites for Friday’s time trial include Millar, Botero and ONCE´s Joseba Beloki, now third overall.