To start, I would like to correct an error I made in yesterday's column: the Vuelta a Espaņa does not have time bonuses at the intermediate sprints and the finish lines like the other Grand Tours. This means that Beloki will likely sit in the leader's jersey until the mountains unless a breakaway can take some time out of the ONCE boys. Again, this is to the tactical advantage of U.S. Postal and Kelme-Costa Blanca, whose leaders are only 14" and 15" behind Beloki respectively. Also, this means that the big sprinters will just be out for stage wins and the points competition, not the Gold Jersey.
Today's Stage 2 was a 144.7 km ride from Valencia to Alcoi heading southwest along the Mediterrenean coast. The route took in three intermediate sprints at 20 km, 28 km, and 69 km, before hitting the Cat 1 climb of the Alto El Portillol at 77km. There was also the Cat 3 climb of the Alto El Revolcat at 127km, only 17.7 km from the finish. After only 10 km, two men broke away on a long trek for glory: Mederic Clain (Cofidis) and German Nieto (Relax-Fuenlabrada). Before the first climb they rode to a lead of over 9', and while they attacked each other over the Cat 1 El Portillol, they came over the top together. Back in the bunch, U.S. Postal for some reason came to the front to share the pacemaking with Once. On the climb, Francesco "Scarecrow" Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo) and Danilo DiLuca (Saeco) set the pace on the front of the pack. The pace wasn't that stiff, but of course it was too much for sprinter Ivan Quaranta (Index-Alexia) who was towed up the hill by his teammates, and even Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli dropped back to help the mountains-challenged sprinter.
Surprisingly, some crosswinds helped split up the field on a flatter section of the climb. The Quaranta group was way off the back while the Saeco boys continued to set the pace on the front. With a Cat 3 climb near the finish, Saeco probably liked the chances for strongman Danilo DiLuca to break away for a win. The lead duo came over the top of the climb together; the first chase group came over the top just over 5' behind the leaders, having taken over 4' back on the climb. This first group contained about 60-70 riders, with the rest of the men spread in small packs all over the mountain. Sprinters Jeremy Hunt (BigMat-Auber '93) and Jeroen Blijlvens (Domo-Farm Frites) also languished in the Quaranta group, and they looked out of it for the stage win. Meanwhile, the fabulous Mario Cipollini (Acqua e Sapone) managed to hang tough in the first group along with Erik Zabel (Telekom) and a few other sprinters. Despite the difficult profile, it looked like it might be a stage for the big sprinters after all.
On the long descent, a number of riders began to rejoin the peloton as the pace was shut down at the front. Jesus Manzano (Kelme-Costa Blanca) and Daniel Schnider (Phonak) took advantage of the lull to launch a stiff attack, putting in a big gap to the field. After a few kilometers, the strung-out peloton brought them back and seemed intent on chasing down the two other men off the front. ONCE had come to the front in full force, raising the pace heading into the feed zone at 93 km. The heat was taking its toll on Clain and Nieto, but they were still holding on to a five minute lead. With about 32 km left, the sprinters' teams sent some men to the front with Mapei, Acqua e Sapone, and Telekom leading the chase. This was bad news for Quaranta, Hunt, and Blijlevens, who were still 1' 40" off the back of the peloton. The gap to the leaders started to come down rapidly under this united assault of the Mapei-Acqua-Telekom train (despite the hideous spectacle of their clashing uniforms). Cipollini seemed to have his good legs, the same set that won him the Milan-San Remo and six stages of the Giro this year. When on form, the fashionable blond with the big smile can actually climb quite well, and his ability to hang with the leaders over all the climbs showed that he was ready to rumble at the finish line.
However, the final Cat 3 climb of the day destroyed the sprinters' train. Clain and Nieto were swept up before the top of the climb, but Nieto's Relax-Fuenlabrada teammate Benjamin Noval launched an attack that was countered by Euskaltel-Euskadi's strongman, David Etxebarria. The two gained a smart gap over the top and built a lead of 20" with 15 km to go as they flew on the descent towards the finish. Another counter-attack sent four riders off the front that included big gun Oscar Sevilla (Kelme-Costa Blanca), who was marked by Jose Azevedo (ONCE-Eroski); the pair was joined by Carlos Torrent (Jazztel-Costa de Almeria) and another Kelme, Alejandro Valverde. The four men bombed down the descent to try to catch the Etxebarria-Noval duo, and put 11" into the peloton with 5 km to go. ONCE was at the front of the peloton in full flight, trying to bring back the dangerous Sevilla; for his part, Azevedo was just sitting on the Kelme waiting for his teammates to make the catch.
Sevilla's group caught the lead duo and Sevilla himself went to the front to force the pace. With 4 km left, Cipollini's zebra-men took up the chase at the front of the peloton, another sign that big Mario's legs are good. On the final uphill grade towards the finish, the zebra-men were swept away by attacks from the iBanestos that were countered by Santiago Botero (Kelme). Zabel's Telekom men began to help with chasing down the counter-attacks. Finally, with 2 km to go, Francisco Mancebo (iBanesto) was able to bridge to Sevilla's group with the peloton just a few seconds behind. As the road flattened a bit, the Mapei boys did the final work to nail back the Sevilla group just under the 1 km mark. The leadout was all disorganized, as the uphill grade still disrupted the trains of the sprinters like Cipo and Zabel. Finally, a Saeco man came to the front and put on the gas, providing a perfect leadout for the magnificent Danilo DiLuca. Erik Zabel, Oscar Camenzind, and Angel Edo had a good run at the finish line, but the powerful DiLuca proved too much for them. Zabel came across in 2nd a bike-length behind, Camenzind was 3rd, and Edo 4th. An exciting conclusion to an outstanding stage! For the stage results, see the live coverage here.
Tomorrow is a 134.2 drag race from San Vicente to Murcia over dead flat roads with only a minor bump in the middle of the profile. There are intermediate sprints at 48 km, 115 km, and 125 km to liven up the stage. Look for Acqua e Sapone, Telekom, and Mapei to crush any breakaways without mercy. With such flat roads and such powerful sprinting teams, it is highly unlikely that this stage will end with anything other than a bunch sprint.
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Ivan Quaranta (Index-Alexia), Jeremy Hunt (BigMat-Auber '93), and Jeroen Blijlevens (Domo-Farm Frites). These sprinters got hammered on the climbs and missed the big party at the finish. Despite feeling like roadkill today, they will likely be happy tomorrow as Stage 3 is flatter than a Texas road-armadillo.
- Mario Cipollini (Acqua e Sapone). He rode well today, but in the final tilt up to the line he was unable to contest the sprint. He crossed in 100th position, but he will be the hot favorite for a win tomorrow, as his team and his legs look sharp and ready.
- Danilo DiLuca (Saeco-Longoni Sport). The golden Italian made a brilliant move to take a quality victory on a difficult finish. He and the rest of Saeco are out to prove a point to Jean-Marie Leblanc and the Tour de France, who revoked their invitation this year's Tour and gave it to a poor French team using the flimsiest of pretenses (Saeco leader Simoni was under a cloud of suspicion for his positive drug test, but so was the leader of the team that replaced Saeco). DiLuca was apparently devastated at having his first chance to go to the big dance revoked. He has clearly rebounded and brought outstanding form and his characteristic flair to the Vuelta. Take that, Jean-Marie Leblanc!
- Erik Zabel (Telekom), Oscar Camenzind (Phonak), and Angel Edo (Milaneza-MSS). Though outfoxed by DiLuca, they showed that they are in good form and ready to be a factor in the race. The battle between Zabel and Edo in the points competition could well be the biggest sideshow of the race as the riders head towards Madrid. For his part, Camenzind looks ready to attack and he could be a threat for a stage win on some of the not-so-insane mountain stages.
- Mederic Clain (Cofidis) and German Nieto (Relax-Fuenlabrada). The two had a wonderful breakaway of over 100 km. Clain claimed the Mountains Jersey for his efforts, while Nieto led the way for a series of good attacks from Relax. Both livened up the race and gained their sponsors lots of air time, which after all is the name of the game.
- Oscar Sevilla (Kelme-Costa Blanca). The baby-faced leader of the Kelmes put in a "cheeky" and gutsy attack today towards the end of the stage. The attack ended up going nowhere, but Sevilla clearly announced to his rivals that he is fit and trim and ready to win in Madrid. Taken with his team's outstanding time trial yesterday, Sevilla has shown that he is the rider his rivals should fear the most in the days to come. I can't wait to see what he does on the Sierra Nevada on Stage 5.