Vuelta a España: Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

In blistering temperatures touching 40ºC, the red jersey worn by the leader of the Vuelta a España has been passed from rider to rider like a hot potato. For the first time in the race’s history, four different riders have held the overall lead after four stages, with the jersey passing from Jakob Fuglsang to Daniele Bennati to stage three winner Pablo Lastras before finally settling on the shoulders of Sylvain Chavanel, who finished 57 seconds behind Daniel Moreno on the highest summit of this year’s race at Sierra Nevada, good enough to move him to the head of the general classification.

The intense heat of a Spanish summer is already taking its toll on the peloton and proved too much for Mark Cavendish, who abandoned the race today saying that he had no power left. Whether it was the extreme weather or perhaps a touch of the stomach problems which had already caused his roommate Matt Goss to quit the race is as yet unclear. Either way, his retirement will compromise his preparation for next month’s World Championships in Copenhagen on a course which for once suits the sprinters.

Lastras claimed his third Vuelta stage and the red jersey

No stage win, but Chavanel gains time on the peloton …

Monday’s 163km stage from Petrer to Totana was won by Movistar’s Pablo Lastras – his third career Vuelta win – after he rode away from the rest of a four-man breakaway group over the final climb of the day, whose summit came with just 12km to go. Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, the best and most experienced finisher of the other three, was left by Markel Irizar (RadioShack) and Ruslan Pydgornyy (Vacansoleil-DCM) to lead the pursuit. The latter pair seemed so afraid of losing to the Frenchman that they effectively sacrificed any chance of victory and gave Lastras a free ride to the finish.

Having been forced to do all the hard work in the closing kilometres, Chavanel nonetheless had enough left to at least win the sprint for second, 15 seconds behind the stage winner and new red jersey, but more importantly 1:28 ahead of the peloton.

… And converts it into the red jersey

Today’s (Tuesday) fourth stage from Baza to Sierra Nevada provided an early introduction to the high mountains on a summit finish at the highest point of this year’s race. Cavendish climbed off his bike, having been dropped from the peloton well before the final 23km hors catégorie climb, which had last featured at the Vuelta in 2008, when it provided the springboard for stage winner David Moncoutié to win the first of his three consecutive mountains classifications.

Moreno won stage four and moved up to second overall

An early seven-man breakaway built an eight-minute lead which the peloton had whittled down to 2½ minutes by the base of the climb. With the pace increasing, the escape group was reduced to four men as the chasing peloton behind also started to thin out. Surprisingly Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Antón, many people’s favourite to win the race, was soon in difficulty, clinging on to the back of the pack and eventually dropping off altogether with around 8km to go as the riders at the front started to test each other’s legs.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali was among the first to put in a meaningful change of pace, before Saxo Bank-Sungard’s Chris Anker Sørensen attacked off the front, followed by Astana’s Robert Kišerlovski. With the Russian sitting resolutely on Sørensen’s wheel and refusing to take a turn at the front, the pair bridged to the four surviving escapees with 5km remaining. Sørensen immediately kicked on, and only Guillaume Bonnafond (AG2R) was able to go with him. Again, the Dane was forced to make all the running as the pair sought to establish a stage-winning lead.

Meanwhile, Katusha’s Daniel Moreno had jumped off the front of the peloton and was able to make the junction to the lead pair. An exhausted Bonnafond was quickly dropped, leaving Moreno and Sørensen – with the Saxo Bank man yet again having to do the bulk of the pace-setting – to contest the finish. Moreno was able to bide his time before coming around Sørensen with 200 metres to go and sprint to an easy victory. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) led a group of around 30 riders including most of the favourites across the line 11 seconds down. Chavanel was 57 seconds back, while Antón cut a forlorn figure as he trailed across the finish 1:38 down on Moreno.

Chavanel became the Vuelta's fourth leader in as many days

The result put Chavanel into the red jersey by 43 seconds over Moreno, courtesy of his advantage from the previous day’s successful break. Nibali is the best placed of the major heads of state in fifth, 53 seconds off the overall lead, with Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre) all less than 40 seconds behind him.

It is early days yet, and it is always dangerous to read too much into individuals’ form on the basis of a single mountains stage – albeit one of the more difficult ones – with the key race-defining days still a week and a half away. However, it is clear that Antón does not have the same form which saw him in the overall lead two-thirds of the way through last year’s race before crashing out. Already 1:31 behind Nibali, he himself admitted he is not the rider he was 12 months ago:

I’m not in the same condition as last year. Considering the time I’ve lost today, it’s going to be very difficult to win the Vuelta but there’s still a long way to go. I didn’t climb well today but I’ve limited the damage and I haven’t lost too much.

Who else fared well today? Chavanel‘s occupancy of the red jersey will only be a temporary one – he is more of a hilly classics rider than a true climber. Moreno‘s win catapulted him into second overall, but he will quickly return to his more customary role of supporting Rodríguez’s challenge and will expect to tumble back down the order. Nibali made a clear statement of intent to demonstrate his form and confidence. Wiggins rode at the front in the closing stages to show that he has recovered fully from the crash which prematurely ended his Tour de France, but then this was also the kind of long, steady climb which favours his unexplosive style. We will have to see how he fares on the steepier, punchier climbs. Rodríguez and Scarponi are certainly capable of hurting their rivals on the steepest slopes and were also conspicuous near the front of the pack today, ready to cover any sudden moves. And Van Den Broeck, Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) and Janez Brajkovič (RadioShack), among others, also rode comfortably in the pack throughout. Menchov in particular will be content to just follow wheels and look to make his move in the individual time trial.

In short, with the exception of Antón, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that today’s stage was inconclusive. All the major players looked to be in decent enough form, and even the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader could ride himself back into contention with one well-placed attack. Incidentally, tomorrow’s ‘flat’ stage finishes in Valdepeñas de Jaén ends with a short but brutal climb that touches gradients of up to 27%. When the same climb featured in last year’s race, the stage was won by Igor Antón. I don’t think he will win tomorrow – and even if he were to do so the time gains would be relatively small – but it is the sort of finish which suits him well, and there are plenty more to come in the days ahead.

In boxing parlance, he has been knocked down and given a standing eight count, but he has not been knocked out just yet. Particularly given the draining temperatures of this first week, there is still a lot of racing to come in this Vuelta.

Stage 3 result:

1. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 3:58:00

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) +0:15

3. Markel Irizar (RadioShack) same time

4. Ruslan Pydgornyy (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:43

Stage 4 result:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 4:51:53

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +0:03

3. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:11

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) same time

5. Przemysław Niemiec (Lampre-ISD) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 13:19:09

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:43

3. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:49

4. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:49

5. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:53

6. Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad) +0:58

7. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:59

8. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +1:03

9. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +1:03

10. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step) +1:04

Points classification:

1. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 28 pts

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 26

3. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 26

4. Chris Sutton (Sky) 25

5. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) 22

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

5. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 6

Link: Vuelta a España official website

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

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