The best thing about the Vuelta is that sense that anything can happen, and I have it on good authority that today could be a day for it. Early this week, US Postal Assistant Director Frankie Andreu told us not to "count out Friday's stage- this is one of the most difficult and complicated stages to control."
Stage 19 from Bejar to Avila has categorized climbs, but does not end in an uphill finish. The 177.8 km course begins with the climb of the Cat 3 Alto de la Hoya before heading into hilly terrain that could favor an opportunistic break, and will keep the peloton vigilant. The major difficulty of the day comes at 98 km, where the riders must climb 16.7 km climb of the Cat 1 Puerto de Serranillos. The steepest points of the climb are only 8% and it crests 63.1 km from the finish line. The final climb of the day is the Cat 2 Puerto de Navalmoral, which hits it's summit 22.8 km from the finish. With the climb so near the finish, the stage will be harder to handle, and could go to a man in a breakaway.
What does all this mean for the contenders? Heras, ahead of Gonzalez by 1'12" doesn't have a comfortable enough lead going into Sunday's time trial in Madrid. This is hardly an ideal stage for Heras to take any more time out of Gonzalez with it's shallower grades and long downhill to the finish, but I'd expect him to be keeping his eye out for opportunities while Postal's 6 man team tries like hell to hang onto this difficult stage. Kelme's Aitor Gonzalez looks set to clean it up in the time trial on Sunday, and Sevilla, the erstwhile leader of the boys in lime green, ever the graceful sportsman, has surrendered his ambitions to those of his turncoat teammate who now has the best chance for victory in Madrid. It could be tight, but the scales tip in Kelme's direction for the finish; they will want to hang onto their advantage, but may look for opportunities to strike should Heras find himself isolated or in a "spot of bother" (thanks, Phil).
ONCE may also be looking for opportunities to move their man Beloki up the ranks. Currently 2'09" behind the leader, and seconds behind Sevilla, Beloki sits in fourth place now, but shouldn't have complete confidence: he was beaten by Sevilla in the first ITT of this Vuelta. ONCE never seems to find it in their game plan to ride aggressively, but I don't think they can guarantee Beloki his second podium finish in a Grand Tour this year without making an effort. If they do, will it help or hurt Postal? With Postal looking for allies, and Heras a safer distance from Beloki, it isn't impossible that ONCE and Postal could find some common ground against Kelme.
On that note, some of us are looking forward to finding out if Postal is still making friends with the Vuelta wildlife. Will we see a repeat of yesterday's collusion with the zebras of Mario Cipollini's Acqua e Sapone team, now without a leader, and finding a new man to lead out in Heras? All shall be revealed as we bring you blow by blow action right here.
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For the last almost 100km there has been a nine-man break of the following riders: Aitor Osa (Banesto), Carlos Quesada Garcia (Kelme), Jose Rebollo (Relax), Pietro Caucchioli (Alessio), Jose Garcia Acosta (Banesto), Marcos Serrano (ONCE), Rui Lavarinhas (Milaneza), Daniel Atienza (Cofidis), Miguel Perdiguero (Acqua). Their advantage is just slightly better than 8 minutes on the peloton.
The peloton is lead by Team Coast. Today is Angel Casero's 30th birthday. Coast has missed the break, so they are perhaps chasing to close the time down between the peloton and the Kelme rider in the break ahead, which could eliminate Coast from the team competition.
Coast with its fierce pace has reduced the gap to about 6 minutes. Aitor Gonzalez sits just behind the yellow jerseys of Team Coast. He looks smugly confident.
6:41 PDT. The boys of Euskaltel, Mayo and Zubeldia, are also towards the front of the peloton, which is 5' 58" behind the break now.
Heras now sits at fourth wheel just behind Team Coast.
There are three Postal riders with Heras near the front of the peloton: two in the traditional blue jerseys, and one in the "new Postie" zebra-striped jersey of Acqua e Sapone.
Rubiera and Vandevelde are the blue Posties.
The peloton is on the day's long climb, the Cat 1 Puerto de Serranillos. It's a long climb of around 17 km.
Things are going well for Postal at this point, with Coast taking the pressure off and controlling the race. There are 6.5 km left in this climb.
Martin Perdiguero (Acqua e Sapone) is in the break. If Coast hadn't taken up the chase, it is doubtful that Postal would have pursued the breakaways due to the big leadout Perdiguero gave Heras on the Covatilla yesterday.
Beloki has attacked!
6 km to go to the summit of the climb, and Beloki is off the front.
The incessant gibes of the Daily Peloton staff, and a handful of ham-gazing awards, has finally lit a fire under Beloki...he's finally attacking, something he hasn't done in earnest all year.
Team Coast is keeping the pressure high on the front of the peloton, but Beloki knows this is his last chance, and now it's official, the cat is amongst the pigeons.
Kelme moves to the front to counter, and ONCE is massing at the front as well.
Casagrande has thrown caution to the wind as well- he is off! "Scarecrow" Casagrande launches his first Grand Tour attack since he ran that poor Colombian rider into the curb in the Giro.
Angel Casero joins Casagrande in the attack, and the peloton is stretched thin over the climb. This is going to hurt!
Heras looks calm and collected. Kelme is working in front of him.
Angel Casero, absorbed by the peloton, decides to go again, and there's no reaction.
Garcia Casas (BigMat) is looking in a spot of bother on the back of the group...he's in 6th on GC right now. If nothing else, he's not in the position in the group that he should be in.
The break presses on. Aitor Osa passes the summit first and will take over the King of the Mountains jersey from Heras.
Raphael Casero on the Jazztel team is off on a move as well. He goes over the mountain in tenth place. The peloton is just behind him, 3' 34" behind the break.
The peloton of about 40 men is strung out on the descent. The pressure is on, but there will likely be some regrouping now.
57 km to go to the finish.
Garcia Acosta attacks the breakaway. iBanesto is pretty frisky in this race.
Yesterday, Santiago Blanco's parents were waiting for him at the finish, and he told the Spanish papers that even though he was dying on the road, he had to keep on; he didn't want to disappoint them.
The field is strung out again, and led by three postal jerseys.
A Postal rider also pats an Acqua e Sapone man on the back and welcomes him into the Postal train. That's for real, folks, it happened right in front of the camera.
Coast, Saeco, Postal and Acqua e Sapone riders lead the peloton now.
Saeco probably likes DiLuca's chances for winning on the uphill tilt of the finish. He won an earlier stage of the Vuelta with a similar finish. Saeco takes over the lead at the front of the peloton.
Garcia Acosta is still away off the front, down the descent. iBanesto is looking for some redemption of their Vuelta in these final days...
iBanesto has had three stage wins already, since their two leaders Mercado and Mancebo left the race. Pablo Lastras and Aitor Osa have made the most of their freedom to ride for themselves. Acosta has 1'27" to the first chase.
Heras is riding comfortably with Saeco taking the pressure off at the front of the peloton for now.
Garcia Acosta is flying down the descent, and passing through the town of Burgohondo. He is 38 km from the finish.
Acosta's teammate Aitor Osa is sitting on... he has nearly two minutes on the chasers, and another 3'16" to the peloton.
Lastras has two stage wins, and Blanco got a third for iBanesto yesterday. Could this be another great breakaway win for the former team of the legendary Miguel Indurain?
Acosta's lead continues to grow. He has 2'13" to the chasers. The peloton is 5'10" behind. One more climb.
Acosta has a tailwind, and he's up to 2'20" with the chasers 2'49" ahead of the peloton.
Aitor Osa is getting an armchair ride in the break. He will have fresh legs for an attack if his teammate is caught.
Saeco is back on the front, and the pace is driving. Heras is right up on the front, following wheels. Heras looks cool and calm. Things are going his way today.
Acosta passes under the intermediate sprint, and starts the climb in earnest.
Rolling terrain makes this course a tough one, where it's difficult to gain any momentum, and very little time to recover. The chasers are starting to lose momentum. They pass under the intermediate sprint 2'21" behind Acosta, with Aitor Osa checking the race profile as they head onto the bottom slopes of this climb.
And now the peloton comes to the town, they are 4'33" behind Acosta. Saeco and Coast are taking a serious interest in the chase. Coast wanting to catch that Kelme rider in the break, and Saeco will like Danilo DiLuca's chance at the finish today.
Perdiguero is driving it on the slopes of the climb at the head of the chase group.
The break is losing momentum, as the course is starting to take a bite. Perdiguero is driving hard, trying to separate the men from the boys.
The gap is slowly coming down now, and it looks like Acosta's lead is fading. Perdiguero has attacked as well, and is off up the road. The remains of the break is looking disorganized.
The peloton is chasing hard, and is led by two Postal riders. Garcia Acosta has a lead of 1'28" on Perdiguero.
The peloton is shrinking now. Christian Van de Velde and Chechu Rubiera are together at the front protecting their man.
Postal has certainly found some legs when it counted most.
Acosta's lead continues to dwindle. He will be able to look back and see Perdiguero and the main field on the slopes below. It could be just the blow his morale doesn't need. Acosta has 1'12" on his nearest chaser.
Perdiguero presses on. He is now 56" behind Acosta.
Perdiguero is hot on his tail.
The two leaders are on the descent, and the peloton continues to pound up the climb. Acosta is starting to suffer. Can he hold off Perdiguero?
ONCE is driving hard up to the summit... and they're over.
ONCE continues to try to put Kelme into difficulty, as they enter the last 20 minutes of racing, and a crosswind section.
Acosta's gap to Perdiguero is opening up again, he has 1'17" on his rival, and the peloton is down 1'54".
Acosta is flying down the descent. He is leaning hard into the corners, taking lots of chances. The gap is opening back up!
15 Km to go. Acosta is holding his own on the peloton and putting time back into Perdiguero. Perdiguero is pedalling hard down the descent in hot pursuit.
Acosta's lead is 1'22" on Perdiguero now... and there's a split in the main field. ONCE took advantage of that crosswinds situation. Unfortunately, it's hard to see who is where.
Pietro Caucchioli has been caught by the peloton. The remains of the early break is rocketing down the descent. They are just over two minutes behind Acosta.
Kelme has come to the front of the peloton, but we're still waiting for news of that split!
Perdiguero is just on the verge of being picked up by the chase group of six now, including Aitor Osa.
Kelme thought they saw an opportunity to take a dig at Heras, but he is still looking comfortable, and has teammates with him. They're giving it up.
Avila is visible in the distance...
Miholjevich of Alessio is taking a flyer off the front. Acosta continues to claw back his lead. Perdiguero is caught by the breakaway. Acosta's attack put in with 45 km to go, looks like it could succeed and make it two stage wins in two days for iBanesto.
Acosta is in the outskirts of Avila. He's inside 3 km to go with plenty of lead. All he has to do is stay on his bike and the stage is his.
The breakaway is touch and go to keep their lead. The peloton is bearing down on them.
Acosta looks comfortable. He riding alongside the beautiful walls of the medieval city of Avila. Ah Spain!
The crowds are cheering him as he climbs up into the city. What an incredibly beautiful city!
The peloton is riding behind. Fassa has come to the front. Heras is right here, as are Christian Vandevelde and Chechu Rubiera.
Acosta is on the cobbles of Avila. He will enjoy this last 1000 meters under no pressure. He has it with an easy margin.
Garcia Acosta has it. He is celebrating all the way through the finishing straight. He is very, very happy!
Aitor Gonzalez attacks on the climb into the city! He is looking to gain some time on Heras! The little climber is responding, but it looks like Gonzalez could gain a few seconds on Heras!
Heras is struggling, but Aitor Gonzalez takes back 5 seconds from Heras. Heras looks very displeased.
Heras is being escorted off the course and looks extremely put out. Gonzalez has hurt him.
Aitor Gonzalez takes back 4 seconds, not 5.
1º 94 ESP Jos? Garcia Acosta BAN 4:24:27
2º 125 ESP Aitor Gonzalez KEL a 2:02
3º 17 ESP M.A. Martin Perdiguero ACQ a 2:06
'' 121 ESP Oscar Sevilla KEL mt.
'' 221 ESP Roberto Heras USP mt.
'' 161 ESP Joseba Beloki ONE mt.
'' 78 ESP Iban Mayo EUS mt.
'' 151 DIN Klaus Möller MIL mt.
'' 81 ITA Francesco Casagrande FAS mt.
'' 1 ESP Angel Casero COA mt.
'' 11º 176 ESP Oscar Pereiro PHO a 2:14
'' 155 SUI Fabian Jeker MIL mt.
'' 88 ITA Marco Velo FAS mt.
We will post the official results, GC and other standings as soon as they come available.
Acosta is spraying the podium girls with champagne. He is a happy, happy man.
Aitor Osa is King of the Mountains, and will likely hold onto it to Madrid.
iBanesto takes the team classification.
Heras is being a little violent with the combined jersey. He doesn't look terribly pleased. Heras is still in yellow, but that podium smile is not coming easy.
Zabel holds onto the points compeition.
Official Stage Results
1. GARCIA ACOSTA, José ESP BAN 4:24:27
2. GONZALEZ, Aitor ESP KEL a 2:02
3. MARTIN PERDIGUERO, M.A. ESP ACQ a 2:06
4. SEVILLA, Oscar ESP KEL a 2:06
5. HERAS, Roberto ESP USP a 2:06
6. BELOKI, Joseba ESP ONE a 2:06
7. MAYO, Iban ESP EUS a 2:06
8. MÖLLER, Klaus DEN MIL a 2:06
9. CASAGRANDE, Francesco ITA FAS a 2:06
10. CASERO, Angel ESP COA a 2:06
11. PEREIRO, Oscar ESP PHO a 2:14
12. JEKER, Fabian SUI MIL a 2:14
13. VELO, Marco ITA FAS a 2:14
14. VALJAVEC, Tadej SLO FAS a 2:14
15. TORRENT, Carlos ESP JAZ a 2:14
16. BELTRAN, Manuel ESP COA a 2:14
17. FERRIO, Jorge ESP JAZ a 2:14
18. SIMONI, Gilberto ITA SAE a 2:14
19. ZUBELDIA, Haimar ESP EUS a 2:14
20. LASTRAS, Pablo ESP BAN a 2:14
Overall Standings after Stage 19
1. HERAS, Roberto ESP USP 71:24:42
2. GONZALEZ, Aitor ESP KEL a 1:08
3. SEVILLA, Oscar ESP KEL a 1:45
4. BELOKI, Joseba ESP ONE a 2:09
5. MAYO, Iban ESP EUS a 4:15
6. GARCIA CASAS, Félix ESP BIG a 4:43
7. CASAGRANDE, Francesco ITA FAS a 4:48
8. SIMONI, Gilberto ITA SAE a 6:12
9. CASERO, Angel ESP COA a 6:18
10. BELTRAN, Manuel ESP COA a 7:08
11. ZUBELDIA, Haimar ESP EUS a 7:33
12. MÖLLER, Klaus DEN MIL a 8:00
13. JEKER, Fabian SUI MIL a 8:22
14. PLAZA, David ESP COA a 11:13
15. TRENTIN, Guido ITA COF a 12:29
16. SOUSA, Rui Miguel POR MIL a 12:45
17. LASTRAS, Pablo ESP BAN a 15:04
18. VALJAVEC, Tadej SLO FAS a 18:52
19. DI LUCA, Danilo ITA SAE a 24:42
20. ZARRABEITIA, Mikel ESP ONE a 29:13
21. PEREZ, Luis ESP COA a 37:06
22. CAUCCHIOLI, Pietro ITA ALS a 39:59
23. MIHOLJEVIC, Vladimir CRO ALS a 46:11
24. KLEYNEN, Steven BEL DFF a 48:07
25. ATIENZA, Daniel ESP COF a 49:24
Climbing Overall after Stage 19
1. OSA, Aitor ESP BAN 105
2. HERAS, Roberto ESP USP 99
3. SIMONI, Gilberto ITA SAE 76
4. GARCIA CASAS, Félix ESP BIG 67
5. PEREIRO, Oscar ESP PHO 62
6. MARTIN PERDIGUERO, M.A. ESP ACQ 54
7. CAUCCHIOLI, Pietro ITA ALS 54
8. SEVILLA, Oscar ESP KEL 51
9. BELOKI, Joseba ESP ONE 49
10. MAYO, Iban ESP EUS 49
Points Overall after Stage 19
1. ZABEL, Erik GER TEL 168
2. GONZALEZ, Aitor ESP KEL 126
3. HERAS, Roberto ESP USP 97
4. SEVILLA, Oscar ESP KEL 90
5. GLOMSER, Gerrit AUT SAE 80
6. DI LUCA, Danilo ITA SAE 77
7. BELOKI, Joseba ESP ONE 74
8. LASTRAS, Pablo ESP BAN 71
9. PEREZ, Luis ESP COA 64
10. MAYO, Iban ESP EUS 63
Team Standings after Stage 19
1. Kelme - Costa Blanca KEL 214:09:13
2. Team Coast COA a 1:08
3. Milaneza - MSS MIL a 26:34
4. Once - Eroski ONE a 30:24
5. Euskaltel - Euskadi EUS a 52:24
6. Cofidis, le credit par telephone COF a 1:10:46
7. IBanesto.com BAN a 1:14:27
8. Fassa Bortolo FAS a 1:16:43
9. Saeco - Longoni Sport SAE a 1:17:51
10. Jazztel - Costa Almeria JAZ a 1:42:36
Thank you for joining us today, and please return for the penultimate stage tomorrow - after an uphill Cat 3 start, it will be a sprinter's game for sure - it is short, only 141.2km, arriving in Madrid's Warner Bros. Park. See you then!