On the first day in the mountains the course offered three climbs over 198 km. The first climb was the Cat 2 Alto de Berchules at 62.5 km, and the second climb was the Cat 3 Alto de Lanjaron at 117.5 km. But the real racing wouldn't start until the 37 km climb up the Sierra Nevada at the end of the stage. A breakaway went early that included Victor Hugo Peña (US Postal), Oscar Laguna (Relax), Mederic Clain (Cofidis), Jose Vincente Garcia Acosta (iBanesto.com), Stephane Berges (AG2r), Jesus Manzano (Kelme), and Rafael Diaz (ONCE). As Saeco was the only big team that missed the break, they had to come to the front and chase for a long time.
As the riders hit the Sierra Nevada, the break and the peloton exploded. There were countless attacks and counterattacks from minor riders, with several teams playing tactical games with their rivals. About halfway up the climb, only a few things were clear. One was that Santiago Botero (Kelme) was again having a bad day on a long, slow climb, just like on Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France. Botero struggled off the back most of the climb, and limited his losses to 6' 08", not nearly as bad as the 15' he lost on the Ventoux. Also, US Postal was having a bad day, as Jose Luis Rubiera got shelled out of the peloton early and came across the line 13' 30" behind the winner. With the peloton whittled down to 40 riders at the halfway point, there were only two posties present: Christian Vandevelde and Roberto Heras. Vandevelde went to the front and set a tough pace that cut the group to about 25 riders, and he continued his amazing turn at the front until 5 km to the finish. Other than Vandevelde, it was not a good performance for the boys in blue.
Heading into the final section of the climb a group of about a dozen riders were off the front of a peloton of about 25 men. The lead group included David Etxebarria (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Guido Trentin (Cofidis), Felix Garcia Casas (BigMat-Auber), Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom), Santiago Blanco (iBanesto.com), Mikel Zarrabetia (ONCE), Haimar Zubeldia (Eusklatel-Euskadi), and a few others. The peloton included most of the big names, who were marking each other and allowing the breakaways to stay up the road to fight it out for the stage win.
The action finally picked up near the top when Trentin and Garcia Casas attacked the breakaway and pulled away for good. In the peloton, Oscar Sevilla (Kelme) finally broke the monotany and put in a blistering attack that only Jörg Jaksche (ONCE) could follow. Sevilla quickly got a gap of about 20" when Stage 2 winner Danilo DiLuca (Saeco) counterattacked from the peloton of big names. Then all hell broke loose. Gold Jersey wearer Beloki (ONCE) attacked, trying to bridge up to DiLuca and Sevilla. Defending champ Casero (Coast) tried to counter, but faltered. Beloki make some progress against the men behind him, but couldn't close the gap on Sevilla or DiLuca.
At the front of the race, Trentin put in a solid attack to drop Garcia Casas in the final kilometer and take the stage win. Garcia Casas crossed in 2nd at 8", and Mikel Zarrabeitia crossed the line in 4th at 10" to take the Gold Jersey off the shoulders of his teammate Beloki. Jaksche came across 6th at 45" with the brilliant Sevilla on his shoulder. DiLuca then came across in 9th at 51". Mancebo (iBanesto) passed Beloki to take 13th at 1' 35". The Beloki group included five other riders who had managed to bridge the gap after his attack, and they crossed the line at 1' 38", 51" behind Sevilla. The Beloki group included Fernando Escartin (Team Coast, 14th), Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo, 15th), Beloki (16th), Jose Azevedo (ONCE, 17th), Manuel Beltran (Team Coast, 18th), and Gilberto Simoni (Saeco, 19th). Heras struggled across in 20th at 1' 45", and Casero followed in 21st at 1' 49". While Sevilla gained some substantial time, the rest of the big names only gained or lost a handful of seconds.
Click here for the live report and results of the stage, the GC, the points competition, and the mountains competition.
Ham-Gazers of the Day
Golden Hams of the Day
- Juan Miguel Mercado (iBanesto.com), Juan Manuel Garate (Lampre-Daikin), and Santiago Botero (Kelme-Costa Blanca). These three men came into today's stage as favorites for the podium in Madrid. That took a big hit today, as the long shallow climb of the Sierra Nevada didn't suit them. Mercado was 45th at 3' 50", Garate was 47th at 4' 10", and Botero was 58th at 6' 08". As Botero showed in the Tour, it is possible to rally from a large deficit to grab a good final position in the GC: he finished the Tour in 4th place after losing 15' on Mont Ventoux. Tomorrow and next week will see some different types of mountains with sharp, steep climbs where riders can make or lose handfuls of minutes in a few short kilometers. With that in mind, don't count these riders out just yet, as they are all quality climbers who can still attack and make us some big time down the road.
- Roberto Heras and Jose Luis Rubiera (U.S. Postal). These two men dominated the mountains for Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, but they didn't look very good today. Like Mancebo, Garate, and Botero, their style of climbing isn't particularly suited for the Sierra Nevada. Heras limited his losses to less than a minute to his chief rivals, which in the larger scheme of things is pretty good for a bad day. For his part, Rubiera should rebound tomorrow and show the talent that makes him one of the best climbers in the world. The Posties took one on the chin today, but anyone who thinks they're finished is in for a rude awakening in the days to come.
- The Sprinters saved their energy today, and will just try to stay alive until their next opportunity on Stage 7. The damage: Zabel, Freire, Edo, and Petacchi came across in a group 21' 14" back, Svorada came in 24' 42" back, Hunt came across in 24' 47", and the road was swept by Blijlevens (25' 22"), Cipollini (25' 25"), Tuetenberg (32' 49"), and Guidi (37' 00"). But hell, they're still in the race, and that's what really matters for these guys.
- Guido Trentin (Cofidis). His brilliant win today confirmed the excellent form he's shown lately, and announces him as a dangerous man for a high GC finish in this year's Vuelta. He just missed the Gold Jersey, and now trails Mikel Zarrabeitia (ONCE-Eroski) by a mere 16" for the top position. Both will likely lose time tomorrow, but today they rode like heroes and earned every drop of champagne and every podium girl smootchie that they got at the end of the day.
- Oscar Sevilla (Kelme-Costa Blanca). When he attacked, none of the other big names could match him. There is a long way to go until Madrid, but the "Flying Elf" is looking like the man to beat. He has demonstrated great form and an attacking mentality, and might be nuzzling podium girls as soon as tomorrow.
- Christian Vandevelde (U.S. Postal). In the 2001 Tour de France, Christian Vandevelde went down in the Team Time Trial and took Roberto Heras down with him. The crash aggravated Heras' tender knee, an injury that would hamper the Spanish climber for the rest of the season. But Vandevelde went a long way to make up for that crash today. The Posties who were supposed to support Heras on the final climb were nowhere to be seen, and Vandevelde rose to the occasion by putting in a huge turn on the front of the final climb. Like George Hincapie in the Tour, Vandevelde seems to have found his climbing legs at the perfect time. Heras would have been up a creek without Vandevelde today; if Heras does go on to win this Vuelta, he'll owe Vandevelde a huge debt of gratitude for muting the attacks of his rivals on the Sierra Nevada.