By Andrew Hood
Telekom’s Erik Zabel seems to be finding his legs just in time for his favorite race of the season – Milan-San Remo.
The world’s No. 1 had been slipping into a bad habit of finishing second and third in his early races so far this season, but the German Telekom veteran put an end to that streak at Spain’s Tour of Murcia on Friday. Zabel got the monkey off his back taking the 160km third stage in beautiful Caravaca, scoring his first victory of the season.
Kelme’s Javier Pascual Llorente retained his overall lead in an exciting stage that saw U.S. Postal’s Victor Hugo Peña make a move that fell just short. Peña won here last year but got held up behind a crash coming into the base of the Category 1 climb up Cresta del Gallo in Thursday’s stage and lost more than a minute.
Peña attacked at 15km on the lower approaches of the Cat. 3 Alto de Dona Ines, but was brought back on the twisting descent. A group of 13 other riders jumped off the front at 38km but that move barely lasted 10km.
Another group went away on the Cat. 1 climb up Puerto Alto Campo de San Juan as the main bunch split into two groups up the steep climb up the rugged mountains of southeast Spain. Peña attacked again, joined by Santi Blanco (Relax), Carlos Torrent (Paternina), Denis Lunghi (Alessio) and Alvaro Gonzalez (ONCE). With 30km to go, the leading quartet was 1:40 up on the main field, but Kelme and Euskaltel were driving hard to protect their respective race leaders and caught Peña and company with just 1km to go.
“I am feeling in good form this year and it was a shame about yesterday’s stage. I got caught up in a crash just at the base of the climb, so by the time I fought back on, I was at my limit,” Peña said.
With the escape erased, Telekom took over to do good work setting up Zabel. The German grabbed Bortolami’s wheel and Zabel shot around to score the win. Lance Armstrong finished in the lead group just two seconds back.
The Tour of Murcia continues Saturday with the 167-km stage from Cartagena to Alto de la Santa, with two passes over the category-one Alto del Collado Beringa before finishing on the category-three summit, a sharp climb over the final three kilometres.
Stage three results, Caravaca-Caravaca, 160km: 1. Erik Zabel (G), Telekom, 3h42’36”
2. Beat Zberg (Swi), Rabobank
3. Nico Sijmens (B), Vlaanderen
4. Stefan Kupfernagel (G), Phonak
5. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Sidermec
6. Ricardo Serrano (Sp), Labarca
7. Francisco Gutierrez (Sp), Labarca
8. Mariano Picolli (I), Lampre
9. Jorge Ferrio (Sp), Paternina
10. Fabian Wegmann (G), Gerolsteiner – all same time
61. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service at 0:02Overall after three stages
1. Javier Pascual Llorente (Sp), Kelme, 11:28:20
2. Alejandro Valverde (Sp, Kelme) at 0:07 3. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel, at 0:07
4. Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Sp), iBanesto.com, 0:20
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Telekom, at 0:25
6. Leonardo Piepoli (I), iBanesto.com, at 0:26
7. Vladimir Belli (I), Lampre, at 0:31
8. Santi Blanco (Sp), Relax, at 0:31
9. Juan Carlos Dominguez (Sp), Phonak, at 0:33
9. Jose Luis Martinez (Sp), Paternina, at s.t.
20. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, at 0:52
42. Lance Armstrong (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 1:35
80. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 5:47
103. Michael Barry (Can), U.S. Postal Service, at 13:33
119. David Zabriskie (USA), U.S. Postal Service, at 16:19