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Antón conquers uphill task, but Gilbert stays in the red

On a day overshadowed by the death of Laurent Fignon, Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Igor Antón claimed stage four of the Vuelta a España at the top of a short but brutal final climb which featured gradients of up to 25%.

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Although yesterday’s 184km stage from Málaga to Valdepeñas de Jaén included three categorised climbs, with the summit of the second-category Alto de Valdepeñas de Jaén less than eight kilometres from the finish, the race was all about the final kilometre.

The day’s breakaway had been hauled in comfortably, with Philippe Gilbert‘s Omega Pharma-Lotto team working hard to protect the race leader, and by the time the race reached the summit and short descent from the Alto de Valdepeñas de Jaén, the lead group had been reduced to an elite selection.

Luis León Sánchez was first to attack three kilometres out, ekeing out a small advantage before being reeled in with 1.5 km to go. Caisse d’Epargne teammate Rigoberto Urán immediately counter-attacked and briefly looked like snapping the elastic as he sped up the foot of the final uncategorised climb in the small town of Valdepeñas de Jaén.

Merely steep at first, the hill kicks up dramatically at about the 700-metre mark, attaining an eye-watering maximum gradient of 25%. Even the foreshortening effect of television, which tends to flatten slopes, could not disguise how sharp an ascent this was, with all the riders forced to churn the pedals furiously. On this steepest section, immediately preceded by a sharp right-hand turn to kill any momentum leading up to it, it looked almost as if it might be quicker for the riders to climb off their bikes and push them uphill.

Stage four winner Igor Anton

Katusha‘s Joaquim Rodriguez launched his own attack here to try to leapfrog Urán, but Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) clung on to his wheel. Then, with 350 metres to go, Antón leapt decisively away from all of them. Although Nibali, Velits and Rodriguez came close to bridging the gap in the final 100 metres as Antón started to (literally) wobble, he had just enough left in the tank to capture his second career Vuelta stage.

Stage three winner Philippe Gilbert finished fifth, just five seconds behind Antón, and retained the red jersey by ten seconds. And 22-year old Tejay van Garderen of HTC-Columbia continued his fine early showing, finishing just behind Gilbert, and holding sixth place overall. It looks like American cycling has confirmed its bright young star.

A small group containing most of the other big contenders – Menchov, Schleck, Arroyo, Urán – finished together 19 seconds down.

The biggest casualty of the day was 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, who was dropped before the final climb and could only finish 1:34 down. He is already 2:15 off the race lead, with the first of the big mountains yet to come.

Antón later revealed that he had specifically targeted this stage because its final climb closely resembles the similarly angular Mur de Huy hill at the end of Flèche-Wallonne, a race in which he finished fourth this year:

I did the right thing by coming here one and a half months ago to reconnoitre the end of today’s stage.

I remembered the finale of the Flèche-Wallonne where I made the mistake of attacking too early this year. It was a useful defeat because I learned what not to do in these circumstances. I calculated my effort pretty well, although I was afraid of Nibali passing me at the very end.

He also pointed to Rodriguez, who has placed highly on both uphill finishes to date and currently lies just ten seconds off Gilbert’s lead, as the most likely candidate for overall victory:

My goal for the Vuelta was to win a stage. Rodriguez is very strong and I think he’s the favourite for the overall victory. I have the condition to do something good but I haven’t won any small stage race yet. I must improve gradually first.

Nibali, now fourth and just 12 seconds back, was again impressive on the final climb. He said he was feeling strong, and looks to be in the kind of form that propelled him on to the podium at the Giro:

The final was very hard. Though I couldn’t win, my performance shows that I am in good form. I am feeling good for the Vuelta. I missed the Tour so I want to have a good ride here in Spain.

After the past two day’s vicious finishes, the riders will be glad that today’s stage to Lorca – and indeed the two days following – sees a return to flatter terrain, with the sprinters leaping forward from the back of the autobus – most of them finished 20 minutes down yesterday – to reclaim pride of place at the front of the peloton. However, Mark Cavendish‘s chances of claiming a first career Vuelta stage were dealt a blow when his most senior lead-out man, Bernhard Eisel, withdrew yesterday.

Stage 4 result:

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 5:00:29

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:01

3. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) same time

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) s/t

5. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:05

6. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) +0:08

7. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:12

8. Nicolas Roche (AG2R) +0:12

9. Ruben Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:12

10. Rigoberto Urán (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:19

General classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 13:56:30

2. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:10

3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:10

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:12

5. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) +0:16

6. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) +0:29

7. Xavier Tondo (Cervelo) +0:49

8. Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:50

9. Rubén Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:54

10. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:55

Points classification

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 41 pts

2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 37

3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 34

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 34

5. Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ) 25

Mountains classification

1. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 13 pts

2. Dario Cataldo (Quick Step) 8

3. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 6

4. Oscar Pujol (Cervelo) 5

5. Niki Terpstra (Milram) 5

For up-to-the-minute news, results and analysis of the race, visit either the official Vuelta website or the always excellent steephill.tv.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

5 Responses to Antón conquers uphill task, but Gilbert stays in the red

  1. baboonery says:

    I was watching it live (my turn to be working at home, ha!). The stage passed through some lovely country, much of which I’m familiar with (Alhama de Granada, and in particular the town of Alcalá la Real, about 30km from the finish, is a favourite of mine, miles away from anywhere, with awnings over the main street to protect you from the sun. I know this great little bar just off the route…).

    Valdepeñas de Jaén is not a town I know, and after seeing that, I’m not planning on going there in a hurry! I’d need a rope to get up that street on foot, and a rope attached to a car to get up it on a bike. That right turn just before the hill was brutal – I pity any poor sprinter who hadn’t read his road book and was thinking ‘oh, just round this corner now’…

    Rodríguez is looking great on these short, steep finishes, but there’s an awful lot of alta montaña to come (by the way, with Andorra and Lagos de Covadonga in the route this year they’re really spoiling lovers of mountaintop finishes – Covadonga in particular is going to be a beautiful ride to watch at this time of year), and plenty of tiny, chippy Basques and Andaluces ready to ride against you, rather than the race, once the gradients get going. There’s a sense of macho about it that the other two grand tours don’t really have.

    I love the Vuelta, me.

    • Tim says:

      Afternoon, Dave. Sadly, bloody Eurosport got their scheduling wrong again, so I got home last night to discover my recording of the live coverage cut out with 5km to go. Grrr. Still, I was able to watch it first thing this morning. Ah yes, I saw them go through Alcalá la Real – I loved the idea of the awnings over the road!

      I’ll be interested to see how Rodríguez goes in the high mountains. He hung on in there well in the Tour, so he must surely be there or thereabouts. My money would have to go on Nibali at this point, though – if he can find the same form he had at the Giro when he was riding for Basso, he will be tough to beat.

      That stretch of consecutive HC summit finishes on stages 14-16 looks absolutely lethal. I’m knackered just thinking about it.

      I’m still getting used to the Vuelta – this is only the second year I’ve been watching the coverage day-to-day – but the route is stunning, both in terms of the scenery and the stage profiles. Anyway, enough mountains for a while – fingers crossed for Cav today, who seems to be making a habit of losing key teammates this year.

  2. ProtourBlogger says:

    Anton did well at that stage, I wonder if he’ll be okay in the high mountains as well. The same goes for Rodriguez as well, exactly for the reasons you’ve mentioned.
    Now that Andy Schleck is basically out of the race, my money is on Nibali too!

    • Tim says:

      Andy was pretty up-front about only being at the Vuelta to support Frank, although how much support he can offer given that his form has clearly fallen off a cliff is debatable. I just don’t think Frank has enough miles in him after his Tour crash to really contend, but Saturday’s stage should give us a clearer picture. Nibali definitely looks strong, and there were definitely times at the Giro when he looked stronger than his team leader Basso. He is a fantastic climber!

  3. Pingback: Vuelta a España: Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee « The armchair sports fan

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