Vuelta a España: Rodríguez soars then stumbles in the mountains

A pair of tough climbing finishes – the first a short punchy ascent, the second a long hard slog to the summit of a first category mountain – were supposed to resolve the picture at the top of the general classification of the Vuelta a España. Instead, they have only served to muddy the waters, with Sunday’s finish on top of Sierra de Béjar leaving exactly one minute separating 13th place from new leader Bauke Mollema, and with the title credentials of Joaquim Rodríguez hanging on the outcome of Monday’s individual time trial around Salamanca.

Stage 8: Talavera de la Reina to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 177.3km

Rodríguez moved to the top of the standings with a dominant win in San Lorenzo

Rodríguez had put himself firmly in the box seat with a coruscating attack on the final 2.4km climb of stage eight in San Lorenzo, which featured 200 metres of vertical gain and ramps of 27% and 28% in the final kilometre. The Spanish Katusha climber – the overwhelming favourite for the stage – jumped off the wheel of Lampre’s Michele Scarponi on one of the steepest sections with around 500 metres to go and pulled out a nine-second advantage by the finish.

Scarponi finished second with Mollema and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), with the rest of the general classification contenders scattered further down the hill. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali was 32 seconds back (52, after taking time bonuses into account). Sylvain Chavanel conceded the red jersey to Rodríguez after finishing 63 seconds down. Sky’s Bradley Wiggins was in a group of 11 GC men including Juan José Cobo (Geox), Janez Brajkovič (RadioShack) and Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) 20 seconds behind the winner, whose advantage at the head of the overall standings over teammate Daniel Moreno stood at 32 seconds.

Stage 8 result:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 4:49:01

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +0:09

3. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) same time

4. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:12

Stage 9: Villacastín to Sierra de Bejar La Covatilla, 183km

However, if the San Lorenzo climb was tailored perfectly to Rodríguez’s punchy characteristics, today’s finish on Sierra de Béjar – 18.2km with several sections over 10% in its second half – was certainly better suited to those capable of sustaining their power for the best part of 30 minutes. A four-man break had initially pulled out a huge advantage with two survivors – Omega Pharma’s Sebastian Lang and Vacansoleil’s Pim Ligthart – starting the final climb with an advantage of around 3½ minutes.

Mollema moved into the overall lead by just one second

Having caught Lang with less than 7km to go, there then followed one of the most exciting passage of racing seen in any of this year’s Grand Tours. A sequence of attacks by GC contenders shredded the peloton and left Rodríguez blowing hard towards the back of the group. In quick succession, Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step), Nibali and finally Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) put in big efforts off the front which upped the overall pace and sapped the legs of the less powerful riders.

Martin’s attack, which came with just over 5km to go, initially looked like being decisive. But having dropped his cousin Nicolas Roche (AG2R), Nibali eventually dragged the other leaders back up to him. By now Rodríguez was clearly at his limit, and when Sky’s Chris Froome hit the front to keep the tempo high for his team leader Bradley Wiggins it proved to be too much for the red jersey, who fell away just inside 3km and started to drop back rapidly. With opportunity knocking, Wiggins took over the pace-setting at the front, riding several tough climbers – including Nibali – off his wheel with an impressive sustained burst he has rarely if ever displayed in the high mountains. Only in the final stretch, as Martin launched a sprint in a bid for victory and the 20 bonus seconds that only Mollema could follow, did Wiggins tail off. For Martin, it was his first Grand Tour stage win.

However, the British champion’s effort had achieved its objective, with a pained Rodríguez crossing the line 50 seconds after Martin and conceding the overall lead to Mollema by a single second. The 24-year old Dutchman is good value for the red jersey, having been the most consistent performer in the race so far in a season in which he caught the eye when placing fifth at the Tour de Suisse in June, a year after placing 12th at the Giro d’Italia.

Nibali is a further eight seconds back, with Wiggins still outside the top ten in 13th, but now only 60 seconds behind the red jersey.

Dan Martin savours victory at the end of a punishing climb on Sierra de Béjar (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Individual time trial will shake up the order

With the top of the general classification compressed again, tomorrow’s 47km individual time trial takes on additional importance. Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin will be expected to dominate, although after nine punishing days of intense heat and tough climbs we may see some surprising results.

We will certainly see Rodríguez struggle – he lost six minutes in last year’s time trial over a similar distance, and will probably consider himself happy if he can limit his losses to three tomorrow. Similarly, Scarponi (18th at 1:54 behind) and Van Den Broeck (5th, 0:27) are also likely to struggle and concede large chunks of time which will knock them down the order.

Wiggins now stands just 1:00 off the race lead

Perhaps the most intriguing men to watch out for will be Geox’s Denis Menchov(21st, 2:18), a two-time Vuelta winner, and Wiggins himself. Both are top-class time trialists who could easily make up two to three minutes on the majority of riders around them, and both have performed strongly on the big climbs to date. Do not be surprised if either or both catapult themselves into the top three tomorrow night, a position both men are certainly capable of defending in the days to come. My money is on Wiggins to post a top-ten time against the clock – normally I would expect top-five, but I expect today’s effort will cost him some time tomorrow – which should be enough to put him into the red jersey heading into the first rest day. How long he will be able to defend it for is another matter, but it would be a significant achievement nonetheless.

After a week’s racing which has frequently seen temperatures topping 40°C, the competition for the red jersey is also hotting up. The next week – culminating in next Sunday’s ascent of the Angliru – should definitely reduce the field of genuine contenders to a mere handful.

Stage 9 result:

1. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 4:52:14

2. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) same time

3. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) +0:03

4. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +0:04

5. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:07

General classification:

1. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 37:11:17

2.  Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:01

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:09

4. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:18

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:27

6. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:35

7. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:37

8. Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step) +0:42

9. Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) +0:42

10. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) +0:46

Points classification:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 74 pts

2. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 62

3.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 48

5. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 25 pts

2, Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale) 23

3. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20

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

5. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 14

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

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

Debut wins for Sagan and Kittel promise open 2012 sprints

Tour de Polgone stage 6 & 7: Four for Kittel as Sagan sneaks overall victory

Cycling is often a sport of seconds, and that was amply demonstrated in an exciting final two stages of the Tour of Poland. First defending champion Daniel Martin won stage six to take a three-second lead into the last day in Kraków, and then two second-place sprints by erstwhile yellow jersey Peter Sagan were enough – just – to move him back to the top step of the podium as the overall winner by six seconds. And it was also fitting that Marcel Kittel, the young German who held the race lead for the first three days, should complete the circle by winning the final sprint to take his fourth stage win.

Stage 6: Bukovina to Bukowina Tatrzańska, 207.7km

2010 champion Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) put in a succession of attacks in the closing kilometres which finally succeeded in netting him the stage win and also distancing the yellow jersey of Peter Sagan by enough to snatch the overall lead. The Irishman moved in front by three seconds ahead of the final stage in Kraków.

Ten riders formed the day’s breakaway, including Polish riders Jacek Morajko (CCC Polsat) and Michal Golaś (Vacansoleil-DCM). They built a maximum advantage of 5:25 before beginning to splinter, with Leopard-Trek’s Thomas Rohregger the last to be caught with 25km remaining.

Saxo Bank-SunGard then came to the front to force the pace, setting up their Polish rider Jarosław Marycz to launch himself clear on the penultimate descent of the day. He was subsequently joined by RadioShack’s Geoffroy Lequatre, but both were reeled in as Sky upped the pace.

The tempo was too much for Sagan, who slipped off the front group, prompting Martin to attack on the steepest section of the penultimate climb. Only Sky’s Peter Kennaugh was able to follow, but when Martin kicked again he too fell away and the Garmin leader crested the summit alone. However, with Liquigas teammate Vincenzo Nibali helping to pace Sagan back on the descent, Martin was quickly pulled back. CCC Polsat’s Marek Rutkiewicz then launched a kamikaze solo attack off the front, exceeding 100kph as he eked out an eight-second gap on the leaders’ group.

Martin's win moved him into the yellow jersey (image courtesy of Petit Brun/Flickr)

Inside the 3km mark, Martin kicked hard twice but could not shake off a gritty Sagan, who was riding like a man inspired by the yellow jersey on his shoulders. Both Rutkiewicz and the attacking Oliver Zaugg (Leopard-Trek) were caught before the last kilometre, where Sky’s Steve Cummings attacked and was allowed build a ten-second lead as the others watched each other and hesitated. It looked to be a winning advantage, but as the road kicked up in the final 500 metres the British rider faded dramatically as Vacansoleil’s Wouter Poels dashed off the front of the chasing group. Martin immediately responded, finally cracking Sagan as he streaked past the Dutchman to claim an easy victory. Poel’s teammate Marco Marcato beat Lampre’s Polish rider Przemysław Niemiec for third, and Sagan was in the second small group which followed them home.

The yellow jersey was 13 seconds down on Martin, who had started the day 20 seconds behind him. But after applying his ten-second stage winner’s bonus, the Irishman had stolen the race lead by the slim margin of three seconds.

Martin said afterwards that the stage win had been his first priority, with the yellow jersey being a bonus. He admitted that he might need some assistance to defend his lead, however:

I really gave it my all today. I attacked in order to win the stage; the leader’s yellow jersey comes as quite a surprise. It will be hard to hang on to it tomorrow but let’s see what happens. Sagan is faster than me, but on our team we have Haussler, who can bust a good sprint, so we’ll see.

The result meant that either Sagan or Marcato could yet snatch overall victory from Martin by winning the final stage in Kraków, leaving the Irishman hoping that his team’s sprinter Heinrich Haussler and others could help defend his position by preventing them from doing so.

Stage 6 result:

1. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 5:41:05

2. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) + 0:01

3. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:04

4. Przemysław Niemiec (Lampre-ISD) same time

5. Tiago Machado (RadioShack) +0:06

Stage 7: Kraków, 128km

In the end, a pair of second places at the intermediate and final sprints gave Peter Sagan the bonus seconds he needed to snatch back the yellow jersey at the death. Skil-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel completed a clean sweep of the four sprint stages in Kraków, but that was not enough to prevent 2010 winner Daniel Martin from missing out on his second overall win by the wafer-thin margin of six seconds.

The final stage saw the riders cover ten laps of Kraków with an intermediate sprint point coming 30km from the finish. An early break saw Jacek Morajko (CCC Polsat) – for the second day in a row – and Alexandr Pliuschin (Katusha) move clear of the peloton, although Morajko subsequently dropped back and Pliuschin was then joined by teammate Luca Paolini, Daniele Righi (Lampre) and Tomasz Marczyński (CCC Polsat).

In the end Sagan would not be denied (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, the quartet was always doomed to failure, as Liquigas and Vacansoleil moved to the front of the bunch to ensure that Sagan and Marco Marcato would have the opportunity to chase bonus seconds at the intermediate. They were duly swept up a kilometre from the sprint. Garmin sent Heinrich Haussler to contest the sprint to protect Martin’s lead, and as Sagan attempted to squeeze between him and the barrier on the inside of a right-hand bend Haussler gently closed the door, leading to much remonstrating from the Slovakian after he had beaten across the line, with Marcato third. At the time, that left Sagan a single second adrift of Martin, although the commissaires would later promote Sagan to joint-first, gifting both him and Marcato a bonus second.

In the lull after the sprint, Marczyński and Nelson Oliveira (Radioshack) attacked off the front. With Sagan and Marcato still focussed on the possibility of the overall win, this was always going to be no more than one last futile gesture, but the pair built up a lead of 1:18 before the peloton led by Sky and supported by Liquigas and Skil-Shimano stepped it up a notch and brought them back in at lesiure, with Marczyński finally succumbing at the 2km banner.

Into the final kilometre, Liquigas controlled the front of the bunch for Sagan, but it was Astana’s Simon Clarke who was the first to open up with a long-range attack. He was soon overhauled by HTC-Highroad’s Leigh Howard‘s better-timed effort but Kittel, sitting on his wheel with Sagan immediately behind him, was able to pick his moment and power his way to his fourth victory of the week. Sagan followed his slipstream to second a length behind, with Howard a further 1½ lengths behind in third. Haussler could only finish fourth.

Both stage and overall winner punched the air as they crossed the line, completing outstanding weeks for the two men who won six out of seven stages and led for all but one day between them. Martin had to settle for second overall, six seconds down and just one ahead of Marcato in third.

The 21-year old Sagan is only in his second season as a pro, but has already proven himself to be a top talent, winning stages at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Tour of California, the Tour of Sardinia and the Tour de Suisse before this week’s success. He will be a major threat to claim a maiden Grand Tour stage win at the Vuelta a España, which starts in two weeks’ time – look for him on flat stages which require power as well as outright speed.

After confirming his overall win, he said:

This is one of the greatest successes of my career. I had doubts over whether or not I would be able to get back the yellow jersey that I lost yesterday. For me, the race was training for the Vuelta — but to win it, that’s not too bad.

In addition to the overall, Sagan also won the points competition ahead of Marcato and Kittel. Vacansoleil’s Michał Gołaś ensured there was a Pole on the final podium by winning the mountains classification.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 2:50:00

2. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Leigh Howard (HTC-Columbia) s/t

4. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

5. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

General classification:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 26:40:00

2. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:06

3. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:07

4. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:23

5. Peter Kennaugh (Sky) +0:25

Points classification:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 99 pts

2. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) 89

3. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 80

Mountains classification:

1. Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) 85 pts

2. Francisco Javier Vila Errandonea (De Rosa-Ceramica Flaminia) 47

3. Ruslan Pidgornyy (Vacansoleil-DCM) 45

Links: Official website

Tour de Pologne recaps

Stages 1-3: Kittel dominates with sprint hat-trick

Stage 4 & 5: Sagan’s power gives his rivals double vision

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