Note: I will be at the San Francisco Grand Prix, so there won't be another Museo de Jambon article until I get back next Tuesday.
Well today the little men came to the front on the brutal climbs of the Cat 2 Puerto de los Villares and the Special Category Sierra de la Pandera. With the uphill finish and the steepness of the climbs, it was a day for big time gaps that would start to shape the final GC. There was a breakaway of sixteen riders for most of the stage, and the ONCE-Eroski team tired themselves out putting in a day-long chase. Then, at the bottom of the Puerto de los Villares, the big boys finally began to attack one another in earnest. The big attack came from Gilberto Simoni (Saeco-Longoni Sport), who was followed by several men including Fabien Jeker (Milaneza-MSS), Aitor Osa (iBanesto.com), Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom), Oscar Camenzind (Phonak), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Carlos Garcia (Kelme-Costa Blanca), and Felix Garcia Casas (BigMat-Auber 93). They quickly got a gap of over 30" on the field, and surprisingly, the other big guns did not chase. It turns out that they were waiting for the final climb of the Sierra de la Pandera.
After the small downhill section between the climbs, the big counterattack flew away from the peloton of about 40 riders. The attack was led by Christian Vandevelde (US Postal), who put the hammer down to put the pressure on for his leader, Roberto Heras. When Vandevelde hit the front, the peloton shattered: the only men who could follow were Heras, Oscar Sevilla (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Danilo DiLuca (Saeco-Longoni Sport), and Claus Møller (Milaneza-MSS). Left in the dust were men like Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo), Joseba Beloki (ONCE-Eroski), and Beloki's Gold Jersey teammate, Mikel Zarrabeitia. On the steeper lower section of the climb, the Heras group quickly gained on the Simoni group that now led the race. When Vandevelde could pull no more, Heras attacked and quickly dropped DiLuca, Møller, and Sevilla. For his part, Sevilla responded the best and kept relatively close to Heras as they bridged up to Simoni, Garcia Casas, Mayo, and Jeker (the only remaining men off the front).
Heras didn't even hesitate, blowing by the Simoni group on a mission. Simoni raised his pace, and when he was caught by Sevilla they set off with Mayo in pursuit of the flying Postie. They wouldn't catch him: Heras was on fire today, and easily stayed away to take an emphatic stage win. Simoni won the sprint at the line for 2nd at 18", barely pipping Sevilla, with Mayo crossing in 4rd at 19". The big surprise of the day was Vinokourov, who held on for 5th at 48" and jumped into 2nd on GC. He crossed the line with another surprise, Aitor Gonzalez of Kelme, who jumped into 4th on GC. Garcia Casas came across in 7th at 49", which moved the Spaniard into 5th on GC. But the day belonged to Heras and Sevilla: Heras jumped into 3rd on GC, only 39" behind the new wearer of the Gold Jersey, the "Flying Elf" Oscar Sevilla.
Ham-Gazers of the Day
Golden Hams of the Day
- Joseba Beloki (ONCE-Eroski). He is apparently suffering from a dinged up knee, but he also just looked like a very tired man when he crossed the line in 15th at 1' 25" behind Heras. He struggled behind the pure climbers today, unable to respond to any of the attacks. His team is strong, but in a Vuelta filled with steep climbs, he doesn't look like a contender.
- Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo). On his preferred terrain he got shelled by his arch-rival Simoni and the small Spanish climbers. He only finished in 10th at 1' 04" behind Heras today, but if he rides this way on the Angliru, he will lose over 5'.
- Angel Casero (Team Coast). He crossed the line in 19th, 1' 38" behind Heras. He isn't riding poorly, but he's not riding like the defending champion either. He has had very few days of racing this year, as he has been recovering from major knee problems for most of the season. If he can hang in there and stay close, then he might be able to find his form and rally in the last week.
- Roberto Heras and Christian Vandevelde (U.S. Postal). With Rubiera again having a bad day in the mountains, Vandevelde put the hurt on the peloton dropping such men as Casagrande and Beloki like they had lead in their shorts. When the only men who can hold your wheel are Heras, DiLuca, Sevilla, and Møller, you know your are flying up the mountain. Heras then pulled through and delivered the knockout blow, winning the stage and charging into contention on the GC. Postal's "Flyweight Flyer" took out his big hammer and bonked his rivals on the head today. If he can do this again on the Angliru, he could well win his 2nd Vuelta.
- Oscar Sevilla (Kelme-Costa Blanca). The "Flying Elf" got to look like jailbait again as the podium girls smootched his underaged face on the podium. He has been the most consistent attacker so far in this Vuelta, and looks like the man to beat in Madrid. He has matured as a rider, and seems to fear nobody on the climbs. The fact that he was able hold his losses to 18" to the hammering Heras shows his strength: he is the only man to do really well on both of the radically different finishing climbs over the last two days. If he can carry his strength over to the time trials, the other men are in big trouble.
- Gilberto Simoni (Saeco-Longoni Sport), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom), and Felix Garcia Casas (BigMat-Auber 93). On the climb of the Pandera, they emerged as leading contenders for the podium. If they can hold off the surprising David Millar (Cofidis, 22nd on GC @ 3' 16") in the time trials, they each have a solid shot at a top three placing in Madrid.