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Antón loses and regains lead as Vuelta competition hots up

As the Vuelta a España reaches its mid-point and the first of the high mountains, Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Igor Antón has thrown down the gauntlet to his rivals and established himself as the man the others have to beat, despite briefly losing the red jersey to Katusha‘s Joaquim Rodriguez.

Here is how the last two days unfolded.

Stage 10: Tarragona > Vilanova i la Geltrú

Imanol Erviti rode away from his fellow breakaway members on the descent from the first-category Alto del Rat Penat to claim a second consecutive stage for Caisse d’Epargne, on a day when Saxo Bank sent Andy Schleck and Stuart O’Grady home for breaking team rules.

Stage 10 winner Imanol Erviti

Erviti was part of an eleven-man group who led the race up the Rat Penat (the only categorised climb of the day), a short but sharp ascent featuring ramps of 23%, with an advantage of 2:50 over the peloton. He jumped ahead of his breakaway companions with 22 km left, just after they had tackled the one significant uphill stretch on the descent into Vilanova. He soon built up an advantage of over 30 seconds on the fast, narrow descent and was never seriously threatened as the others seemed content to squabble among themselves for the minor placings. It was his second Vuelta stage win, having previously beaten Nicolas Roche in a two-up sprint in 2008.

Erviti explained after the stage:

I accelerated a little on the descent and I quickly found myself with a few metres of a gap. I know that I’m a good rouleur and my thing is attacking from distance. Behind, they looked at one another and that was my chance.

Behind the breakaway, a 50-strong group including all the major players rolled in 1:38 down, having ridden a fast but largely neutral tempo on the Rat Penat. The peloton had adopted a fast pace from the start, covering 47 km in the first hour of racing, with Katusha driving hard at the front to prevent an early breakaway so that Joaquim Rodriguez could chase a time bonus at the first intermediate sprint to take over the overall lead from Igor Antón. He duly obliged, earning himself two seconds for third place.

Schleck and O’Grady – who are both leaving Saxo Bank at the end of this year – were reportedly dismissed for going out for a drink after dinner and not returning to the team hotel until 1am. Schleck told Cyclingnews:

I acknowledge that I have broken a rule on the team by going out for a drink after dinner and for that reason Bjarne [Riis, team manager] has decided to send myself and Stuart O’Grady home. I’m responsible for my actions and even though I think it is too harsh a decision, I respect that Bjarne is the boss and he needs to do what he thinks is best.

It is likely that this is the final time we will see either rider in Saxo Bank colours, with Schleck leaving to head up a Luxembourg-based team next year, and O’Grady rumoured to be joining him.

Stage 10 result:

1. Imanol Erviti (Caisse d’Epargne) 4:13:31

2. Romain Zingle (Cofidis) +0:37

3. Greg Van Avermaet (Omega Pharma-Lotto) same time

4. Mauro Finetto (Liquigas) s/t

5. Javier Moreno (Andalucia-Cajasur) s/t

Stage 11: Vilanova i la Geltrú > Andorra (Pal)

After relinquishing the red jersey for one day, Igor Antón reasserted his authority on the race and established himself as the overall favourite on yesterday’s summit finish in Andorra, soloing to victory in the closing kilometre and becoming the first multiple stage winner of this year’s Vuelta.

At 208 km, the second-longest stage of the Vuelta featured around 190 km of largely flat preamble before the main event, the beyond-category ascent to Vallnord-Sector Pal in Andorra, a steady but gruelling 10 km climb finishing at the summit. Consequently, the peloton was content to allow the day’s two-man break of Johann Tschopp (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Mikaël Cherel (Française des Jeux) to establish a substantial lead that at one stage extended to over 15 minutes before the peloton, led by Rabobank (working for Denis Menchov) and Antón’s Euskaltel-Euskadi team organised the chase.

There be mountains ahead ... (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Although the official start of the final climb was 10 km from the finish, the road began to rise almost immediately after the riders crossed by border into Andorra with 27 km remaining, and it wasn’t long before the steady tempo was enough to stretch the peloton into a long, thin line, with a few at a time gradually dropping off the back to form the autobus.

With Katusha on the front to protect Rodriguez’s lead, Tschopp and Cherel were duly swept up on the lower slopes of the climb seven kilometres from the finish, but they were unable to sustain an aggressive pace and Tschopp’s Bbox teammate Nicolas Vogondy almost immediately launched a speculative attack which took a kilometre to reel back in.

Xacobeo Galicia‘s Ezequiel Mosquera was the first serious contender to attack, putting in a massive effort just after the 5 km banner. Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali were the first to try to respond, followed by Antón and Fränk Schleck, but Schleck was soon in trouble and fell back. Behind them, the lead group exploded, with talented men such as David Arroyo and Menchov – wasting his team’s earlier hard work – sliding backwards rapidly.

Antón slowly inched ever closer, sweeping past a suffering Nibali and then Rodriguez, who appeared to hit the wall completely at around three kilometres. Mosquera, a rapidly growing target in the near distance,  was unable to hold him at bay as he began to pay for his early attack, and Antón closed on him inexorably, catching and then accelerating away decisively with 1,100 metres to go to take the win by three seconds.

Cervelo‘s Xavier Tondó finished strongly to come in third, ten seconds down, closely followed by the Caisse d’Epargne pair of Marzio Bruseghin and Rigoberto Urán. Nibali rode hard to the end to come in sixth at 23 seconds (with Schleck in tow) limiting his losses on the road. Menchov was 56th, five minutes down on the day and now over eight minutes behind overall, eliminating him from overall contention.

It was a beautifully judged ride by Antón, who got his tactics spot on, refusing to panic and clawing his way back up to the front at his own pace. Mosquera’s attack had been a brave one, decimating the leading group behind him, but came perhaps a couple of kilometres too early to be ultimately decisive. And Rodriguez, keen to defend the leader’s jersey, clearly strayed too far into the red zone for too long before blowing up spectacularly, losing 59 seconds on the road (and a further twenty in time bonus) to slip down to fourth overall.

Anton was delighted to add this stage to his earlier win on stage four, and revealed he is now thinking about overall victory:

It’s a great outcome with the stage win, the red jersey and the time bonus. Now I can’t lie any more: I’ll fight for the final victory at the Vuelta. I’m not afraid of anything, except of experiencing a very bad day. If I don’t win in Madrid, it’s no big deal. I’m already happy with how I’m going.

Neither Nibali nor Tondó were too discouraged, though, with both pointing out there are many tough days still to tackle. Nibali said:

The rhythm in the climb was a bit too high for me. I was at my limit. I preferred to set my own pace than try to follow Mosquera. It’s been a difficult climb for me, but not only for me. This is only the first big climb of the Vuelta. We can’t draw any conclusions yet.

And Tondó added:

I know this ascent to Pal very well. With the headwind, I thought it was better not to follow Mosquera, Rodriguez and Nibali when they accelerated. I preferred to keep my own rhythm and finish strongly. I caught Nibali, I finished third on the stage and I’m very happy because Igor Antón was unbeatable anyway. I’m only one minute down on him on GC and there is still a long way to go at the Vuelta.

Antón must now consider himself the favourite to win in Madrid, although Nibali will be have definite opportunities in the days to come on the three consecutive summit finishes and individual time trial. Tondó and Mosquera too, have shown the ability to ride strongly on the big climbs and will also look for chances to attack. And, intriguingly, Caisse d’Epargne have three riders – Bruseghin, Rubén Plaza and Urán – in the top eight, all within about two minutes of the lead. If the team can decide on a clear leader, the prospect of a one-two-three punch on one or more of the big mountain finishes could severely test the strength of both Antón and his Euskaltel-Euskadi squad.

As a side effect of the last two big climbing days, Antón now also leads the points competition, 15 points ahead of the top-placed sprinter, Mark Cavendish.

Today’s stage sees the race return to Spain with a finish in Lleida. With only one early categorised climb (albeit a category two), if the sprinters can avoid being dropped by too much over the summit of the Coll de Bóixols, they will stand a good chance of regrouping for a final bunch sprint. It is the first of two back-to-back opportunities for Cavendish and Tyler Farrar to reassert themselves in the points competition before the pendulum swings back in favour of the climbers as the race re-enters the high mountains on Saturday.

Stage 11 result:

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 5:25:44

2. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:03

3. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) +0:10

4. Marzio Bruseghin (Caisse d’Epargne) +0:15

5. Rigoberto Urán (Caisse d’Epargne) same time

General classification:

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 47:37:15

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) +0:45

3. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) +1:04

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +1:17

5. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +1:29

6. Marzio Bruseghin (Caisse d’Epargne) +1:57

7. Rubén Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) +2:07

8. Rigoberto Urán (Caisse d’Epargne) +2:13

9. Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) +2:30

10. Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank) +2:30

Points classification

1. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 75 pts

2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 61

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 60

4. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) 56

5. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 54

Mountains classification

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 41 pts

2. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 36

3. Gonzalo Rabuñal (Xacobeo Galicia) 25

4. Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 15

5. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) 11

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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