Welcome to this afternoon's coverage of the Vuelta a Espana - the Grand Tour which promises to be the most exciting of the year.
With possibly six main contenders and closely matched teams, it will surely be a roller coaster ride for both fans and the participants - and the race begins in grand style with this afternoon's team time trial.
The teams will set off in the following order:
Relax-Fuenlabrada 15.18 h.
Jazztel-Costa de Almería 15.22 h.
BigMat 15.26 h.
Milaneza-MSS 15.30 h.
Euskaltel-Euskadi 15.34 h.
Index-Alexia 15.38 h.
AG2R Prevoyance 15.42 h.
Saeco 15.46 h.
Phonak 15.50 h.
Tacconi Sport 15.54 h.
Acqua & Sapone 15.58 h.
Alessio 16.02 h.
Domo-Farm Frites 16.06 h.
Kelme-Costa Blanca 16.10 h.
Telekom 16.18 h.
Cofidis 16.22 h.
US Postal Service 16.26 h.
ONCE-Eroski 16.30 h.
Fassa Bortolo 16.34 h.
Mapei 16.38 h.
iBanesto.com 16.42 h.
Coast 16.46 h.
Coast is the last team to depart because last year's winner, Casero, is riding for them this season.
Index-Alexia have just set off - the sixth team to leave the starting point at la Ciutat de les Arts i de les Ciències and leave the city via the CV-500 dual carriageway direction El Saler.
The return leg follows the same route, entering the city via Plaza de Monteolivete, continuing along Calle Alcalde Reig, Avenida de Jacinto Benavente, Plaza de América, Paseo de la Ciudadela, Plaza del Temple, Calle Pintor López, Calle Conde Trénor, Calle Blanquerías and Guillem de Castro, until arriving at El Puente de las Artes.
The riders will then continue along Calle Mauro Guillén, Calle Llano de Zaidía, Calle Guadalaviar, Cronista Ribelles, Calle de la Trinidad, San Pío V, Llano del Real, General Elio and Avenida Blasco Ibáñez (against the usual flow of the traffic) until the junction with Calle Gascó Oliag, where they will turn to travel back along Avenida Blasco Ibáñez (following the normal traffic flow), Calle General Elio and Calle Llano del Real, before reaching the finish line situated in Paseo de La Alameda.
The weather conditions are perfect and a surprise dopage check this morning, gladly brought no surprises.
La Vuelta starts this year in one of the most emblematic cities in Spain as far as sport is concerned. Valencia is very related to cycling and the people there will vibrate with the 23 teams taking part in this new edition of Vuelta a España; the teams will be the protagonists of a team time trial that will start near the pond in the "Museo de las Ciencias," ten metres above sea level and will finish in front of "Puente de las Flores".
The riders will have the chance to show all their strength along the flat roads and beat the average speed of 50 kilometres per hour. Since 1935, Valencia has welcomed La Vuelta. The last individual time trial that took place in Valencia was in 1987 and Sean Kelly was the winner that time.
As regards the last data we have about ONCE-Eroski team, they will be the favourites to win this team time trial along the streets of Valencia. The last team time trial La Vuelta offered was between Arcos de la Frontera and Jerez in 1982.
That time, Gatorade was the winning team with a time of 37'51", covering a distance of 32.6 kilometres. Clas-Cajastur, led by Rominger, covered the same distance in 38'26", ONCE team in 38'28" and Banesto in 38'34".
Of course today the ONCE team are red hot favourites and if they are on song it is hard to see how anyone could beat them.
BigMat-Auber 93: 41. Felix Garcia Casas, 42. Guillaume Auger, 43. Stephane Heulot, 44. Jeremy Hunt, 45. Xavier Jan, 46. Aitor Kintana, 47. Cyril Saugrain, 48. Alexei Sivakov, 49. Sebastien Talabardon have set off - they are currently in third spot with a time of 27.37.
Second place are Euskaltel-Euskadi: 71. Mikel Artetxe, 72. David Etxebarria, 73. Iker Flores, 74. Gorka Gerrikagoitia, 75. Roberto Laiseka, 76. Alberto Lopez de Munain, 77. Jose Martinez, 78. Iban Mayo, 79. Haimar Zubeldia with 27.24.
But it is the pasta men who have set down the benchmark: Milaneza-MSS (a.k.a. Maia): 151. Claus Michael Møller, 152. Angel Edo, 153. Victoriano Fernandez, 154. Joan Horrach, 155. Fabian Jeker, 156. Rui Laverinhas, 157. Melchior Mauri, 158. Joao Silva, 159. Rui Sousa with a stunning ride of 27.15.
Meanwhile out on the course it is Phonak who are setting a new fastest time at the check points.
Milaneza got some good practice in the first stage of the Volta a Portugal, even though they only got 5th @ 5" over a much shorter course.
Kelme departs - Blanca 121. Oscar Sevilla, 122. Santiago Botero, 123. Juan Jose De Los Angeles, 124. Carlos Garcia, 125. Aitor Gonzalez, 126. Jose Gutierrez, 127. Jesus Manzano, 128. Antonio Tauler, 129. Alejandro Valverde - with Tauler and Botero as powerhouses in the team they might surprise this afternoon.
Saeco come in to finish, they are in provisional third spot - so the position is now:
Milaneza-MSS @ 27.15
Euskatel @ 27.24
Saeco @ 27.34
Index Alexia are currently the slowest of the nine teams to finish - not much of a birthday present for Giuseppe Di Grande.
Italian rider Giuseppe Di Grande (Index-Alexia) is the first rider to celebrate his birthday during this year’s race (the birthdays of 17 other riders will coincide with this year’s Vuelta). Di Grande, who celebrates his 29th birthday today, turned pro in 1996 with the Mapei team. His best results came the following season, with stage wins in Semana Bergamasca, Giro de Italia and the Tour of Romandy.
After spending the 2000 season wearing the colours of the Festina team, in 2001 he signed for his current team, Index-Alexia. His best placing this season was obtained in the Tour of Switzerland, in which he finished eighth.
Phonak Hearing Systems storm home - they capture the first spot and set the benchmark down on the other teams and seconds faster than Milaneza-MSS with a time of 27.08, while Acqua e Sapone - those Zebra men with Cipo as team leader, have set the fastest mid point timing so far - 1 second faster than current leaders Phonak.
But now it is Kelme who are giving the fans a show, 13.35 at the 12.5 kilometre mark - wow, what a time!
Temperatures today around 30 degrees so it is hot but not stifling - Lampre, led by Garate and Tonkov, have also put in a fast time at the intermediate point - 13.51 - second only to the speeding green machine of the Kelme.
Postal now approach the start - Heras, former winner of the race, knows there can be no mistakes this afternoon - a crash could seriously disadvantage any of the favourites.
But it is the Acqua e Sapone men who take the lead!
The position is:
Acqua = 27.04
Phonak = 27.08
MSS = 27.15
All fast times but surely the favourites will manage to get under the 27 minute mark!
ONCE now come to the start - will they try and blast away the opposition and get an early advantage - or will they ride within themselves and another team carry the responsibility of wearing the leader's jersey early on?
In the next few days, the sprinters will start to battle for the Gold Jersey before the race gets to the mountains on Stage 5. Cipollini (Acqua e Sapone) and Edo (Milaneza-MSS) look to be well positioned to challenge with the solid ride of their teams.
Quick word on time trials in the Vuelta:
History tells us that four riders are at the top of the list of time trial winners. With six victories we find Tony Rominger, Melchor Mauri, Abraham Olano and Alex Zulle. In 1990 the first trio time trial was held in Benicasim. With the ONCE team we had Mauri, Cabestany and Fuerte. The following year in Mérida, Mauri won again with a trio, but he won alone in Cala D´Or and Valladolid.
In 1993, Allex Zulle won in La Coruña, in the climb time trial in Navacerrada and in Santiago. In 1995, Olano became the winner in Zaragoza, Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares. The first time trial was held in La Vuelta in 1941 and it was between Gijón and Oviedo. In 1967, in Vigo, the rider from Holland, Janssen, and the Spanish Errandonea got the same time.
So Kelme now lead with a time of 26.36 - a tremendous performance by the boys in green - Postal pass the halfway stage 11 seconds slower than the Kelme's time.
So the position is:
Kelme = 26.36
Acqua = 27.04
Phonak = 27.08
While at the intermediate spot Telekom are second fatest so far to Kelme, just 2 seconds off the pace at 13.37.
That will put Erik Zabel in a great position for the Gold in the coming days!
But ONCE change all that! They are through in 13.32!
The ONCE - pre-race favourites - are obviously going to strike the first blow very early in the race.
Banesto now set off - the last Spanish team to depart.
And now Team Coast - deprived of their rightful place in the Tour de France - Casero says he will let his cycling answer the critics. Marcel Wust has proven to be one of the team managers of the year and has a strong team to back his man.
Team Coast: 1. Angel Casero, 2. Daniel Becke, 3. Manuel Beltran, 4. Fernando Escartin, 5. Aitor Garamendia, 6. Fabrizio Guidi, 7. Jaime Hernandez, 8. Luis Perez, 9. David Plaza.
Telekom storm into second place - while Cofidis, whom I have not seen all race, come home into third spot.
So Kelme @ 26.36, Telekom @ 26.39, Cofidis @ 26.47.
Great performance for Millar and his merry men then - and encouraging for his many fans.
ONCE still look awesomely strong however - though they appear to have lost one rider.
Postal storm into top spot! 26.35! An amazing second half has seen them wipe out the 11 second deficiet and take the lead.
Wow, a great comeback over the last half of the course for the Posties! Bruyneel will be happy about that!
But it is the ONCE who have set the fastest time - 26.21 - an incredible time! 14 seconds faster than the Postal team and surely one that will not be beaten by Coast.
JJ - Jörg Jaksche - will wear the gold if the time remains the best - and on the intermediate times it looks good enough. Although in regard to the US Postal performance, maybe the intermediate time is not the best benchmark - they stormed round the second part of the course.
Fassa come home in 26.44. This puts them in 5th position.
Coast are 23 seconds slower than the ONCE at the halfway stage.
Mapei finish in 7th spot - 27.03 - they will be happy with that performance.
Postal will be happy with ONCE in the Gold...just like in the Tour, when ONCE tired themselves a bit before the mountains.
1º ONCE-Eroski 26:21
2º US Postal a 14
3º Kelme C. Blanca a 15
4º Team-Telekom a 18
5º Fassa-Bortolo a 23
6º Cofidis a 26
7º Mapei-Quick Step a 42
8º Acqua e Sapone a 43
9º Phonak a 47
10º Lampre Daikin a 54
ONCE will be obliged to ride at the front. It's hard to tell whether Saiz will be happy with this, or whether he'll hope that Zabel of Telekom will come to the front and take the Gold Jersey.
So just Coast to finish; full results very shortly.
Coast are coming in to the finish; it looks as though they will be in the top 6 but not good enough to beat the ONCE.
8th spot for Coast! The ONCE have it and JJ should be in gold!
1º ONCE-Eroski 26:21
2º US Postal a 14
3º Kelme Costa Blanca a 15
4º Team Telekom a 18
5º Fassa Bortolo a 23
6º Cofidis a 26
7º Ibanesto.com a 27
8º Team Coast a 39
9º Mapei-Quick Step a 42
10º Acqua e Sapone a 43
11º Phonak a 47
12º Lampre Daikin a 54
13º Milaneza-MSS a 54
14º Domo-Farm-Frites a 59
15º Euskaltel a 1:03
16º Tacconi Sport a 1:13
17º Saeco Longoni a 1:13
18º Bigmat.Auber93 a 1:16
19º Jazztel-C. Almeria a 1:21
20º Alessio a 1:24
21º AG2R Prevoyance a 1:26
22º Relax Fuenlabrada a 1:31
23º Index Alexia a 2:38
My mistake, it is Beloki in Gold:
Joseba Beloki Dorronsoro (Spa-One)
Igor Gonzalez Galdeano (Spa-One)
José Azevedo (Por)
Rafael Diaz Justo (Spa)
Jörg Jaksche (Ger)
ONCE hold the top 5 positions all at 26.21.
So the ONCE have gained a 14 second advantage on their nearest rivals US Postal - which will make tomorrow's stage very interesting.
Stage 2 is a 144.7 km ride from Valencia to Alcoi. The route takes in three intermediate sprints at 20 km, 28 km, and 69 km, before hitting the Cat 1 climb of the Alto El Portillol at 77 km. There is also the Cat 3 climb of the Alto El Revolcat at 127 km, only 17.7 km from the finish.
Add to that the fact that the road tilts upward in the last few kilometers of the finishing circuit, and it looks like the teams of the sprinters will be hard-pressed to bring their fast men to the line first. Look for powerful opportunists with climbing legs like David Etxebarria (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Danilo DiLuca (Saeco) to make a charge at victory here.
Also, this is ideal terrain for a group of no-names to have their day in the sun. If the sprinting teams can keep it together, look for a sprinter with climbing legs like Erik Zabel (Team Telekom), Oscar Freire (Mapei), or Angel Edo (Milaneza-MSS).
So join us tomorrow for yet more excitment from the Vuelta - thanks for reading - hope to see you tomorrow!