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Antón maintains narrow lead after first week of Vuelta a España

As the Vuelta a España pauses for its first rest day today, the organisers can give themselves a pat on the back for a first week designed to keep the big contenders tightly packed, but produce varied racing. All nine stages to date have featured a different winner, with nine different teams and eight nationalities represented. Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Igor Antón wears the leader’s red jersey, with only two seconds separating him from Vincenzo Nibali in third. David Moncoutié leads in the early stages of the mountains classification as he seeks a third straight climbers’ title. And while it is no surprise that Mark Cavendish leads the points competition, he does so without having claimed an individual stage win.

All this means that the middle week of the Vuelta is shaping up nicely with a whole series of intriguing plots and subplots, and an endless possibility of twists and turns. Here is a brief overview of what took place on this weekend’s stages – both undulating days in the mountains, and both resulting in solo breakaway winners.

Stage 8: Villena > Xorret de Catí

Stage eight winner David Moncoutié

Cofidis’s David Moncoutié was the sole survivor of a five-man break after the brutal final climb of the Xorret del Catí, claiming a mountain stage at the Vuelta for the third successive year as behind him the general classification underwent its initial selection.

After an early crash at 10 km caught out many riders including overall leader Gilbert, overall contenders Ezequiel Mosquera and David Arroyo and stage seven winner Alessandro Petacchi, the commissaires annulled the subsequent intermediate sprint, a decision which would later cost Joaquim Rodriguez a two-second bonus which would have put him in the red jersey.

Soon after, a successful breakaway was engineered by two-time King of the Mountains Moncoutié. He was joined by polka dot jersey Serafín Martínez and three others. The group’s lead grew to nearly eight minutes with 45 km left before the peloton started to close the gap on the penultimate climb of the Puerto de la Carrasqueta.

However, the escapees reached the bottom of the 3.8 km asscent of the Xorret del Catí (which features sections of up to 22% gradient), with a three-minute advantage. First Cervelo and then Liquigas set a fierce tempo as the peloton accelerated rapidly in pursuit, with Caisse d’Epargne‘s Rigoberto Urán then launching an audacious solo attack. In response, Carlos Sastre made a move to bridge the gap to Urán, but he was easily reeled in. Rodriguez then attacked repeatedly to shake up the leading contenders. Only Nibali, Antón and Xavier Tondó were equal to the challenge, with Sastre putting in a huge effort to claw his way up to them. Other big names such as Fränk Schleck, Denis Menchov and Gilbert were left floundering in their wake as a decisive gap started to open up.

Up ahead, an unspectacular but relentless tempo by Moncoutié – a strong but never explosive climber – gradually shook off his fellow breakaway members one by one, and by the time the Frenchman reached the summit, just over three kilometres from the finish, he had established a stage-winning advantage. He would eventually cross the line 54 seconds clear of Martínez, Johann Tschopp and José Luis Arrieta.

Further behind, Nibali attacked hard as the chasers approached the summit, with only Antón and Rodriguez able to live with his pace. Rodriguez would eventually win their three-up sprint to finish 1:29 behind Moncoutié but a minute ahead of Schleck and over two clear of Gilbert and Menchov as the field disintegrated into tiny groups behind them.

Antón claimed the red jersey as Gilbert tumbled down to 14th, with Rodriguez on the same time and Nibali just two seconds back.

Stage winner Moncoutié had missed the Tour de France to maximise his form for the Vuelta, and had specifically targeted this stage as the launch-pad for his mountains campaign:

Today I wanted to gain points in the King of the Mountains competition and try to win the stage, so I fulfilled my goals on both scores. I skipped the Tour de France this year, so the Vuelta for me is an important goal.

I had marked off the stage to Xorret del Catí and the scenario was exactly as I predicted.

The polka dot jersey remains my goal. I’ll attack again for scoring points and trying to win another stage. I have stage 11 in mind.

The win was also a big boost for a Cofidis team who had been the only French squad not to win a stage in July’s Tour de France.

Despite his win, Moncoutié trails Martínez by ten points in the climbers’ classification, but the battle for the polka dot jersey is now well and truly joined. The points competition – where just six points separate the top five – is as close as the race for overall victory, with Antón’s seventh-place finish moving him up into fourth in the green jersey rankings behind current leader Mark Cavendish.

Finally, the race paused for a minute’s silence before the start to mark the passing of Team Sky soigneur Txema González, who died on Friday from a bacterial infection. Sky withdrew from the race as a mark of respect, and the peloton have donated the day’s prize money and a signed leader’s jersey to González’s family.

Stage 8 result:

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 5:14:32

2. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:54

3. Johann Tschopp (BBox Bouygues Telecom) +0:54

4. José Luis Arrieta (AG2R) +0:54

5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +1:29

Stage 9: Calpe > Alcoy

David López celebrates winning stage nine

On a day of relentless ascents and descents featuring seven medium mountains in the final 130 km of the stage, an exhausted David López of Caisse d’Epargne had just enough in the tank to secure his first Grand Tour stage win, after he had hurtled clear of the remnants of the day’s breakaway group on the final descent five kilometres from home.

The Spaniard had been among a 15-man group that slipped away early on and gradually thinned out over the course of the climbs. Their lead stretched out beyond 9:30 with around 30 km left on a day when a weary peloton was happy to let the elastic stretch ahead of today’s rest day.

With stage eight winner David Moncoutié in the break and seeking mountains points, Xacobeo Galicia had sent Gonzalo Rabuñal into the breakaway to help defend Serafín Martínez‘s ten-point advantage, and while Rabuñal was able to lead over most of the climbs, he could not prevent the Frenchman from securing enough points to claim the polka dot jersey.

López made an attempted attack on the penultimate descent, but was eventually reeled back in. Undeterred, though, he went again on the last downhill of the day with under five kilometres remaining, riding solo into Alcoy with a comfortable advantage over the trio of Moncoutié, Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas). And though first Caruso and then Kreuziger leapt forward to try to bridge the gap on the testing uphill finish, López was able to cruise over the line with six seconds in hand and savour his hard-earned victory.

There then followed a tense seven minutes while Omega Pharma-Lotto‘s Jean-Christophe Peraud – a former Olympic mountain biking silver medalist – waited to see if he had done enough to claim a surprise red jersey, having finished, isolated, 55 seconds behind López. But the Euskaltel-Euskadi team of Igor Antón had measured their effort perfectly as they upped the pace in the final 20 km, ensuring they will continue to defend the lead when the race resumes tomorrow. Nonetheless, Peraud leapt to fifth in the general classification.

A tired but ecstatic López said afterwards:

I picked the right time to go alone and I suffered a lot to maintain my advantage until the finish line, but it was worth it. The emotion this win generates is indescribable. I never imagined it could be so intense.

Antón was relieved to have retained the red jersey for another day, but identified Vincenzo Nibali as his main threat after the Italian had remained watchfully glued to him and Joaquim Rodriguez throughout the day:

I believe in Nibali for the overall win. He’s looking fresh.

López’s win means the Vuelta has now seen nine winners from nine different teams during its nine stages to date. Caisse d’Epargne have six riders in the top 21, with Rubén Plaza and Marzio Bruseghin the best-placed, sixth and ninth respectively and both less than a minute and a half off the overall lead.

Alessandro Petacchi withdrew during the stage, suffering from the after-effects of yesterday’s crash. He will return to Italy to face a doping investigation, and it is unclear at this stage whether we will ever see him in the professional peloton again.

The race resumes tomorrow with stage ten from Tarragona to Vilanova i la Geltrú, which features the challenging first-category climb of Alto del Rat Penat, whose summit comes just 32 km from the finish. It should be another day for the climbers rather than the sprinters in what is turning out to be an excellent and unpredictable Vuelta.

Stage 9 result:

1. David López (Caisse d’Epargne) 5:20:51

2. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) +0:06

3. Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) +0:13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) +0:21

5. Blel Kadri (AG2R) +0:27 secs

General classification:

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 37:56:42

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) same time

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:02

4. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) +0:42

5. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:52

6. Rubén Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) +1:15

7. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +1:18

8. Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) +1:19

9. Marzio Bruseghin (Caisse d’Epargne) +1:22

10. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) +1:26

Points classification

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 56 pts

2. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) 53

3. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 50

4. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 50

5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 47

Mountains classification

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 41 pts

2. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 36

3. Gonzalo Rabuñal (Xacobeo Galicia) 25

4. Oscar Pujol (Cervelo) 10

5. Dario Cataldo (Quick Step) 8

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.

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