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Vuelta a España: Sagan and Kittel debut wins promise end to Cavendish domination

Contrasting maiden Grand Tour stage wins by a pair of Vuelta a España debutants – Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel – punctuated what should have been a relatively quiet couple of days for the big names, but turned out to be anything but. A late team attack by the Liquigas team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday’s stage was followed by a crash within sight of the finish today to leave many riders cursing a combination of unexpected time losses and crash injuries.

Stage 6: Úbeda to Córdoba, 196.8km

Stage six to Córdoba saw a four-man break reeled in by the peloton with 27km remaining, just before the final second-category climb. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) set a fierce pace on the front which soon had several riders hanging on desperately at the back, including the now familiar sight of a struggling Igor Antón. It’s safe to say now that the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader’s general classification hopes have vanished.

Defending King of the Mountains David Moncoutié predictably popped off the front to collect maximum points over the summit and was joined early on the subsequent descent by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step). However, with just under 10km to go to the finish, Liquigas launched a pre-planned attack, with four men – including 2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali – breaking away from the bunch at speeds touching 90kph and flying past the Moncoutié group. Only stage three winner Pablo Lastras – who had previously won in Córdoba back in 2002 – was able to go with them as the Liquigas attack put clear daylight between themselves and the other GC contenders.

Having executed their plan to perfection, you would imagine that in the final few kilometres there would have been a communication from the Liquigas team car to its four riders saying something along the lines of:

Right, we want Vincenzo to get as many bonus seconds as possible, ideally the 20 seconds for the win. So let’s set him up for the sprint. If he can’t beat Lastras, make sure none of you finish ahead of him so he gets second place and 12 seconds. Okay, everybody got that?

Sagan won a stage on his Grand Tour debut (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But no. As the lead quintet approached the finish, the four Liquigas riders seemed unclear what to do and as Lastras opened up his sprint Sagan shot forward to cover the move and at least ensure the stage victory stayed within the team. Lastras crossed the line two lengths behind as Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Eros Capecchi all looked at each other and, having already shot themselves in one foot, promptly put a bullet in the other as Agnoli took the four bonus seconds for third ahead of his team leader. It was, quite simply, a comedy of basic errors at the end of a superbly executed tactical move.

The key GC contenders all finished in one of two groups, either 17 or 23 seconds behind – red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was in the first of these – meaning a Nibali victory would have effectively doubled his gains and earned him enough time to put him into the overall lead.

At 21 years 203 days, Sagan claimed his first Grand Tour stage on his debut, making him the youngest winner at one of the three biggest races of the year since Heinrich Haussler at the 2005 Vuelta.

Stage 6 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 4:38:22

2. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) same time

3. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

Stage 7: Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 187.6km

Today’s stage had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it, and first year pro Marcel Kittel delivered not only his own maiden Grand Tour stage victory but a similar first for his Skil-Shimano squad in their sixth year of racing. However, the finish was marred by a massive high-speed crash near the front in the final 100 metres when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) drifted right as Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) edged to his left beside him. The two touched wheels, immediately went down heavily, and set off a domino effect which sent several other riders tumbling to the ground.

A first Grand Tour win for both Kittel and Skil-Shimano

Earlier, a four-man break had built a lead of nearly nine minutes, but on a flattish day with a predominantly downhill final 40km a mass finish was always going to occur. With the sprinters’ teams all jostling for position, Skil-Shimano moved decisively to the front under the flamme rouge and provided a strong lead-out for Kittel, who held off yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan by a bike length as the carnage unfolded behind him.

Leading contenders Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim RodríguezMichele Scarponi and Jurgen Van den Broeck all came down in the crash – none appeared to suffer anything more than cuts and bruises – but red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was able to pull up in time to avoid being unseated. Farrar did not remount for several minutes and was taken to hospital immediately afterwards with muscular and tissue injuries to his left leg, but reportedly no broken bones. However, it seems likely he will be forced to abandon.

The crash held up more than half the peloton, but because it occurred in the final 3km everyone in the bunch received the same time. Even without the accident, Kittel would have won anyway as he was in pole position already. Chavanel retains his 15-second lead over Daniel Moreno, with both Nibali and Rodríguez in close attendance. That is likely to change after tomorrow’s finish in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km.

An end to Mark Cavendish’s sprint domination?

For the past four years, the combination of the world’s fastest pure sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and cycling’s best lead-out train in HTC-Highroad have dominated the bunch finishes in every major race they have entered. Cavendish alone has won a remarkable 30 individual stages in nine attempts at the three Grand Tours in that period, while André Greipel added six more before leaving for Omega Pharma-Lotto last winter.

Degenkolb's departure from HTC-Highroad will add to the competition next year

However, HTC-Highroad is disbanding at the end of this season, and Cavendish and arguably the finest collection of sprint talent the sport has ever seen are being scattered across the professional peloton. That roster includes Matt Goss (winner of Milan-San Remo), lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw, and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who won twice at the Dauphiné and will be joining his compatriot Kittel at Skil-Shimano next year.

Cavendish has yet to confirm who he will ride for next year – Sky are assumed to be his most likely destination – but no matter where he goes he is unlikely to have the kind of well-drilled train that the likes of Renshaw, Goss, Tony Martin and Bernhard Eisel guaranteed him. The Manxman will still win races next year – and plenty of them – but the break-up of his team means the stranglehold he has had on flat stages, where his rivals have generally been racing only for second place, will be broken. That can only be a good thing for the sport.

Already this year we have seen Greipel, Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen win their first Tour de France stages, and the addition of Sagan and Kittel to the winner’s circle at Grand Tours will ensure a broader spectrum of potential winners at the biggest races next year.

At 23, Kittel is in his first season as a professional, but announced his presence immediately with a victory at January’s Tour de Langkawi. But it was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month where he really sprang to prominence, winning four stages with devastating final bursts. His win today was equally impressive.

The 21-year old Sagan is already in his second year, and emerged as the overall winner at the Tour of Poland after two stage wins and some dogged defensive climbing on the hillier stages. The Slovakian is well suited to finishes requiring power as well as speed, and had already enjoyed a hugely successful 2011 before the Vuelta, winning three stages at the Giro de Sardegna, one at the Tour of California and two at the Tour de Suisse. He is also a two-time stage winner at Paris-Nice.

The elite group of sprinters will soon be saying goodbye to veteran stalwarts such as Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen but now includes newcomers Kittel and Sagan. Add to that the established Greipel and Farrar, powerful classics men such as the Norwegian pairing of Thor Hushovd and Boasson Hagen and a number of others who are not quite in that top bracket but are all potential big race winners on their day – Degenkolb joins the likes of Daniele Bennati and J J Haedo in this category – the sprinters’ field looks deeper and stronger than it has done for several years. Bunch sprints in 2012 should be quite a sight to behold.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 4:47:59

2.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

4. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) s/t

5. Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 27:29:12

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:15

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:16

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:25

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:41

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:44

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:49

9. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:49

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 48

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

4. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41

5. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 41

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

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

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 10

5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

Link: Vuelta a España official website

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Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

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

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