So in the 134.2 drag race from San Vicente to Murcia over dead flat roads today, it was Super Mario Cipollini (Acqua e Sapone) taking an exciting sprint from Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) and Erik Zabel (Telekom). The stage was extremely short, and with the flat profile there were very few attacks. Most likely, the opportunists realized that today any attack would be futile with the sprinters hungry for wins before the mountains hit on Stage 5. The only long breakaway came from Jurgen Van Goolen (Domo-Farm Frites), who gained over 7' on the field before getting nailed back.
The chase started early with Index-Alexia, Telekom, Acqua e Sapone, and Mapei-Quick Step leading the charge. Lampre-Daikin also contributed riders after awhile. There was a stiff headwind, and Van Goolen suffered from his solo effort. In the peloton, the men from ONCE-Eroski, U.S. Postal, Kelme-Costa Blanca, and Saeco-Longoni Sport also made appearences, fighting for position in case the peloton split into echelons. Last year the Posties broke the race open on an early flat stage by putting the hammer down when there was a headwind . The leaders were clearly trying to avoid getting caught out if somebody tried a similar tactic again this year.
Van Goolen was caught with over 37 km left in the race, and it seemed as though this was a perfect time for a counterattack from some other opportunists. However, with the ONCEs and the sprinters' teams putting down the hammer, there was no chance for anyone else to get off the front. Only one lone attack went off the front, and Rolf Aldag of Telekom pounced on it immediately and shut it down. After that point it was an all-out war between the sprinters teams as they jostled for position. In the last 5 km, several different teams sprinted all out to the front to try to control the race and gain good position for their sprinters. The pace-lines were changing literally from moment to moment, as new teams came to the front and other teams faded.
The main teams involved in this war for position were Acqua e Sapone (for Cipollini), Telekom (for Zabel), Mapei (for Freire), Lampre (for Svorada), Milaneza-MSS (for Edo), Phonak (for Teutenberg), Index-Alexia (for Quaranta), and Fassa Bortolo (for Petacchi). There were a few other sprinters in there too who were drafting off the train of the bigger teams, and when the leadout screamed through the final left-hand corner, they went through so quickly that they split the field. All in all there were twenty men mixing it up in the final sprint who gapped the field by 6". Up front, the last couple of riders in the Acqua e Sapone train perservered and gave Cipollini a perfect leadout for the line.
Cipollini hit the front from a long ways out, but as Fred Rodriguez said after this year's Milan-San Remo, once Cipo hits the front he doesn't fade. Rodriguez thought he had Cipo's number that day in Italy because Mario had hit the front so far out in the sprint. But Fred came in 2nd, unable to get around the best sprinter in the world as he just kept accelerating to the line. The same was true today: Petacchi tried to come around him on the left, and Zabel tried to come around him on the right, but Mario just kept the hammer down and held them off for the victory. It was close, so close that Cipo didn't give his standard two-armed salute. Still, he came across a wheel ahead of Petacchi and a bike in front of Zabel. It was a truly brilliant display of sprinting, what with the number of quality sprinters on powerful teams pounding each other in the last 5 km before the line. Zabel likely suffered from the absence of his super leadout man Gian Matteo Fagnini, who had to withdraw before the Vuelta started for physical reasons. Cipo's leadout man Giovanni Lombardi was outstanding, and just like he did so many times in this year's Giro, he provided the perfect launch pad for SuperMario's rocket to victory.
Stage 4 will be another sprint-fest, as the 149.5 km course from Aguilas to Roquetas de Mar is as flat as a week-old soda. Three intermediate sprints will again keep the pace high, coming at 7 km, 60 km, and 126 km. The sprinters without a victory at this point will be rabid for success, as the next two stages finish at the top of mountains and will be dominated by the skinny guys. Look for another big battle between the Mapei, Index-Alexia, Telekom, and Acqua e Sapone trains, with the winner coming from the usual suspects: Cipollini, Zabel, Freire, Quaranta, Petacchi, Svorada, and Edo. And then look for them to quickly change over to gears that look like frying pans for the next two stages in the mountains.
For a listing of the results and the live report of the stage, click here.
Ham-Gazers of the Day
Golden Hams of the Day
- U.S. Postal and Kelme-Costa Blanca. Yesterday both teams spent some time on the front. Today, they both sat on while ONCE shared the pacemaking with the sprinters' teams. Sure, they had to do some work to keep their leaders near the front, and Botero (Kelme) did suffer a flat. But overall, this was a good day of rest and relaxation for the Posties and the Kelmes. If they can do this again tomorrow, they will likely have fresher legs than the ONCEs once they hit the Sierra Nevada on Stage 5.
- Ivan Quaranta (Index-Alexia). His team put in a huge effort on the front for him today, but he was only able to come across in 11th. Sure, there were nothing but quality guys in front of him, but today was likely his best chance for victory. Quaranta suffers every time the road tilts up even a little, and today was as flat as it gets. Quaranta must be very frustrated with his performance, but he will have another chance to show his sterling kick on tomorrow's flat stage.
Grazed Hams of the Day
- Mario Cipollini and the Acqua e Sapone Team. His Royal Blondness showed good legs yesterday, but couldn't quite make it up that last incline to contest the sprint. Today he was on his preferred terrain, and used a perfect leadout from his amazing zebra-men to take his first ever stage victory in the Vuelta a Espaņa. Somehow I don't think this will be his last Vuelta victory.
- Erik Zabel (Telekom) and Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo). They sprinted well today, coming up just short in one of the best sprints of the year. Zabel earned himself the lead in the Points Competition, and Petacchi showed why he is considered to be the future of Italian cycling. He pushed Cipollini in the Giro, and he once again came in 2nd behind the Italian legend today. Cipo has already announced that he won't finish the race, so look for Petacchi to take at least one victory before they hit Madrid. Also, Petacchi is now the leading challenger to Zabel in the battle for the Red and White Points Jersey.
- Bram Tankink (Domo-Farm Frites) and Nicolas Portal (AG2r Prevoyance). They both went down hard today, earning themselves a heap of road rash and a long chase back to the group. Both finished the day safely in the peloton, no small feat considering how fast the sprinters' teams were flying over the last 40 km.
- Antonio Cruz (U.S. Postal). His crash yesterday left him covered in bandages, but he rode well today and finished in the main group. He is a valuable man for the Posties, so his toughness in riding through the pain will give them a huge boost down the road.