Vuelta a España: Alejandro Valverde sprints into the lead as stage three hits the mountains
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Monday, August 20, 2012

Vuelta a España: Alejandro Valverde sprints into the lead as stage three hits the mountains

by Ben Atkins at 11:57 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Vuelta a España, Race Reports and Results
Movistar leader beats Joaquim Rodríguez in photo finish as Contador announces his return

alejandro valverdeAlejandro Valverde (Movistar) won the third stage of the 2012 Vuelta a España, between Faustino V and Eibar, on the Alto de Arrate, as the race hit the mountains for the first time, as he outsprinted Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) in the closest of finishes. The two riders were at the head of a group of four, which had detached from the splintering peloton on the final climb as Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) announced his return to the top level of racing with a series of blistering attacks.

Try as he might however, Contador was unable to shake off Valverde and Rodríguez, as they clung doggedly to his wheel, and Tour de France runner-up Chris Froome (Team Sky) was repeatedly able to claw his way up to the three Spaniards.

As the road descended slightly to the finish it was Rodríguez that launched himself towards the line, but the 2009 race winner just managed to come around him, and edge his wheel past the Catalan to take victory. Behind them, Froome beat Contador into third place and take the last four bonus seconds.

“The last few kilometres of racing were a bit complicated,” said Valverde afterwards. “I knew the curves pretty well but I hadn’t raced here for three years, so I didn’t remember as well as ‘Purito’ [Rodriguez] who went very strongly.

“Normally, whoever comes first in the last curve wins the stage but today it went differently,” he added. “I managed to leapfrog ‘Purito’ right on the line.”

With the top riders of the race duelling at this early stage, Valverde has been given a chance to look at his main rivals for the final red jersey; unsurprisingly he’s impressed with one rider in particular.

“Man, you’ve seen Alberto’s attacks!” he exclaimed. “Joaquim [Rodriguez] followed him very easily. Froome stayed a bit behind. It cost him something to stay on the wheels but he has the time trial to his advantage, so he remains in contention.”

The 155.3km was saw an eight-man break, consisting of Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale), Sergio Carrasco (Andalucía), Andrey Zeits (Astana), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Nico Sijmens (Cofidis), Dominique Rollin (FDJ-BigMat), Markel Irizar (RadioShack-Nissan) and Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM) get away early, and build a lead of more than four minutes.

The favourites’ teams would not allow the group any more than this however, and steadily reeled them in, in the second half of the stage. Despite some last gasp resistance from Irizar, the break was over just as the final climb to the Alto de Arrate began.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank and Team Sky exchanged turns on the front of the rapidly reducing peloton, but it was the repeated attacks from Contador that eventually pulled the four big men clear. None of them was able to drop the others on the last metres of the climb however, or the false flat and slight descent of the stage’s final two kilometres, and Valverde’s superior sprint managed to overcome that of Rodríguez on the line.

Rodríguez’ Katusha teammate Dani Moreno led the rest of the front group across the line, just six seconds behind Valverde; Movistar’s red jersey Jonathan Castroviejo had long since been dropped however, and the race lead passed over to his stage-winning teammate.

The mountains come early and so does the break of the day

While most Grand Tours give the peloton a few days to acclimatise before the climbing starts, the 2012 Vuelta a España delivered a mountaintop finish on only stage three. While this was far from the toughest stage of the race, riders would have to scale the 2nd category Alto La Aldea, and the 3rd category Puertos de Vittoria and de Campazar on the way to the final 1st category Alto de Arrate, which would come with two kilometres to go.

Carrasco and Rollin attacked in the first kilometre, and were soon joined in the escape by the two Belgians Gilbert and Sijmens, then Riblon, Zeits, Irizar and Ligthart. After ten kilometres the group of eight was 1’55” ahead and, as Movistar controlled the peloton behind them, this gap began to grow further.

Gilbert was by far the best placed of the octet, just ten seconds behind Castroviejo, and had the potential to take the lead with time bonuses in the stage’s two intermediate sprints. With them both coming in the final 20km of the stage though, and with the former Belgian champion unlikely to finish with the favourites at the end of the stage, Movistar was evidently not worried by his presence up the road.

When the group arrived at the foot of the climb to the Alto La Aldea it was 3’15” clear; this dropped a little on the climb, but was back up to 3’10” as Ligthart led Gilbert over the top after 32.3km. Movistar was happy to allow the gap to grow further, with it rising to 4’20”, as Ligthart took the points over the Puerto de Vittoria after 66.6km, with Gilbert again in second place.

This was as far as the group was allowed to get however, and Movistar began to slowly close it down and, by the time Ligthart took the points over the Puerto de Campazar with 35.1km to go - with Sijmens taking second, ahead of Gilbert, this time - the peloton was just 2’22” behind.

Rollin took the first intermediate sprint in Zaldibar with 20.1km to go, with the peloton following at 1’40”, but then Movistar began to lift the pace and the gap began to shrink much more quickly.

On the unclassified climb that followed, the cohesion of the group collapsed, as the eight riders began to attack one another. This saw Rollin, and then Ligthart dropped, but the remaining six continued, as Team Sky took over on the front of the peloton.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank and Omega Pharma-Quick Step moved ahead and lifted the pace considerably, shutting the gap to just 52 seconds at the 15km banner. Gilbert then took the second intermediate sprint in Eibar, but Team Sky was now leading the peloton 18 seconds behind him.

The break is over and the favourites begin to spar on the final climb

Irizar attacked alone, through the city streets but the Spaniard was passed by Team Sky’s British champion Ian Stannard just a few hundred metres before the final climb began.

Stannard kept the pace high as the early slopes began, but Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) immediately jumped off the front; the Dutch champion couldn’t get far however, as Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank led the peloton past him less than a kilometre later.

This pace on the early slopes put paid to Castroviejo, as the race leader was unable to stay with the leaders. The peloton was down to just 30 riders now, as Team Sky and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank sparred at the front.

Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) then came up to increase the pace further, which saw defending champion Juanjo Cobo (Movistar) dropped. This was just a red rag for Valvrerde though, who became the first of the big names to attack.

Contador chased down the 2009 champion, with Rodríguez and Froome struggling to go with him. The four of them began to look at one another however, which allowed the other favourites to rejoin. Contador went again though, with Rodríguez and Valverde going with him, and Froome clawed his way back up to them.

The four of them eased up again though, and, with four kilometres to go, the rest reeled them back in. Froome’s Sky teammate Rigoberto Uran took over the pace, but the peloton was now less than 20 riders as it entered the final kilometre of the climb.

Contador went for a third time, and Rodríguez and Valverde managed to go with him once again. Froome managed to claw his way across again though, and the rest of the group followed. Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) then took the front, and Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) tried to ride away, but at that moment Contador attacked yet again.

Rodríguez and Valverde were glued to his wheel again, with Froome following for a fourth time, but Contador kicked again and only the two Spanish riders could follow. Froome caught up as they crossed the top of the climb with two kilometres to go, and the four continued.

A group of ten behind them, consisting of Roche, Antón, Moreno, Uran, Rabobank duo Roberk Gesink and Bauke Mollema, Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale), Winner Anacona (Lampre-ISD), Andrew Talansky, and Valverde’s Movistar teammate Beñat Intxausti.

Contador went again with just over a kilometre to go, but the gradient was too gentle to make a difference and he was unable to get away. Rodríguez then attacked as the road began to descend gently, with Valverde on his wheel; the Catalan appeared to have got the stage wrapped up but, as he began to freewheel in the closing metres, Valverde managed to throw his front wheel ahead as the line arrived.

"I'm really angry, said Rodríguez afterwards. “I lost a stage I was virtually holding in my hands. I knew the profile of the stage, especially I knew in the end I had to stay ahead because of two difficult downhill corners.

“In fact I was perfect,” he added, “but in the last 5 metres I stopped pedalling and Valverde passed me by a few millimetres. I expected the favourite riders to be at the same standard today and I have very good feelings about my shape, but in this moment I'm so pissed off with myself that I don't really care. I can only think I lost a stage; not because I was weaker, but because I was stupid".

Result stage 3
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team
2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Spa) Katusha Team
3. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky
4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank
5. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team @ 6s
6. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank
7. Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale
8. Beñat Intxausti (Spa) Movistar Team
9. Andrew Talansky (USA) Garmin-Sharp
10. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank

Standings after stage 3
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team
2. Beñat Intxausti (Spa) Movistar Team @ 18s
3. Joaquim Rodríguez (Spa) Katusha Team @ 19s
4. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky @ 20s
5. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank @ 24s
6. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank @ 28s
7. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank @ 28s
8. Rigoberto Uran (Col) Team Sky @ 30s
9. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team @ 33s
10. Igor Antón (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi @ 46s


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