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Vuelta a Espaņa - Museo de Jamon Report: Stage 21
 
By Locutus
Date: 9/28/2003
Vuelta a Espaņa - Museo de Jamon Report: Stage 21
 
Golden Hams of the Final Day
  • Alessandro "Italian Stallion" Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo). He rode in all three grand tours, and he actually finished this one. He didn't win the Points Jersey, but he did go home with the most stage wins with five after he smoked everyone again today. With the six stage victories he racked up in the Giro, and the four victories that he racked up in the Tour, that gives him fifteen stage victories in the grand tours this year. That is an amazing record that will be very difficult for anyone to break, ever. Petacchi has emerged this year to be the best sprinter in the world by far, and he has saved his team from the dismal performances of its GC riders. Petacchi is the new king of the sprints, and I can't wait to see what he does next year.
  • "The Big E-Z," Erik Zabel (Telekom). In the race for the Points Jersey, he has come up short in the Tour the last two years in the face of the onslaught by the Aussie Sprinting Mafia. However, today the Big E-Z wrapped up his second consecutive Points Jersey in the Vuelta, taking points in the intermediate sprints and 2nd in the final sprint to distance himself from Valverde and Petacchi. Zabel only took two stage wins, but his climbing ability and cagey riding has kept him at the top of the sprinter heap once again. It's unclear how long Zabel can keep this up, but he has shown in this Vuelta that he is far from over the hill.
  • Roberto "Spanish Fly" Heras (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). In 2001 and 2002, a time trial specialist took the Golden Jersey off the back of a climber on the final time trial. This year, Heras racked up a measure of revenge for himself and climbers everywhere, using yesterday's uphill test to shock the world with a Lemond-like comeback from a huge deficit. As he claims his 2nd Vuelta victory, Heras has answered all the critics who doubted the wisdom of his move to US Postal, as his team and his manager gave him brilliant support in his charge towards victory. Frankie Andreu once said that it doesn't matter who else holds the leader's jersey during the first week, or the second week, or even the third week: all that matters is that you have it on the final day. ONCE-Eroski held the Golden Jersey after the first nineteen stages of this Vuelta, and the stress of carrying that burden clearly showed in the final few stages. Once again, US Postal out-foxed and out-rode the ONCEs, letting Saiz's boys ride themselves into the ground defending the Gold early on and taking it from them when it counted. To be sure, ONCE's strategy almost worked this time, as the boys in yellow rode with fire and heart and courage on the roads of Spain. In the end, however, their strategy, their manager, and their legs finally exploded. US Postal has now taken the last two grand tours, and their team looks as strong as ever.
  • Isidro "Nitro" Nozal and Marcos Serrano (ONCE-Eroski). While Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano rode a respectable Vuelta, it was these two domestiques who really showed their talent this year. Nozal buried himself riding first for his team leader, and then in defense of his own position. "Nitro" rode over his head, taking enough time in the time trials to ward off all of his heavily favored challengers who kept putting the wood to him on the climbs. Nozal gritted his teeth and gutted it out for over two-and-a-half weeks, but he finally succumbed yesterday. Still, he took 2nd in his national tour, and he has proven himself to have deep reserves of both talent and character. With the proper contract and the right team environment, Nozal could learn to really start believing in himself and become a team leader. For his part, Serrano saved his teammate on more than a few occasions. Whenever Nozal faltered on a climb, Serrano seemed to be there to pace him and drag him back into the race. While the future of the ONCE team structure is uncertain, the future of these two riders is very, very bright indeed.
  • Alejandro Valverde (Kelme-Costa Blanca). Valverde, the winner of the all-around competition has shown that he is a worthy co-leader of the Kermits. The depth of his talent is impressive, as he has a decent sprint, good time-trialing skills, and outstanding climbing legs. He won two stages, and managed to claw his way up onto the lowest step of the final GC podium with a great ride yesterday. With the one-two punch of Valverde and Oscar Sevilla, the green-striped mountain smurfs of Kelme will be a major force to be reckoned with next year.
  • Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank). Rasmussen and Levi Leipheimer demonstrated the bizarre trend in this year's Vuelta: support riders who emerged as major stars, and team leaders who become super-domestiques. Like Nozal and Valverde, Rasmussen came into this race as a domestique to support his team-leader Leipheimer. Like Gonzalez de Galdeano and Sevilla, Leipheimer struggled to find his best form, but unselfishly gave up his status as team leader and put his talents at the service of his teammate when it counted. Rasmussen won Stage 7, and with Leipheimer's help he was a major player on all of the big mountain climbs. He lost way too much time in the time trials to threaten for a podium position, but Rasmussen's 7th place at 5' 56" is still pretty darned good. If he can ever learn to master the test against the clock, or at least to not be so bad at it, Rasmussen can hope to step up on a grand tour podium some time soon. And even if he doesn't, he has shown himself to be one helluva climber who can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
  • David "Maltese Falcon" Millar (Cofidis). Millar may never be the GC rider that we want him to be. However, the talent that the Scottish rider displayed in this Vuelta showed that he is a winner who will stand on the podium a lot more times before he hangs up his cycling shoes. He was 2nd in the two flat time trials, bested only by the amazing "Nitro" Nozal on both occasions. His attack on the final climb on Stage 18 was nothing short of brilliant, as he used his power climbing and time trialing skills to deliver a sound spanking to the peloton. Millar is coming out of this Vuelta with outstanding form, and with the World Championships only a couple of weeks away, it seems like anyone who bets against Millar in the individual time trial would be throwing money away. He also looks like a dark-horse favorite for the road race as well. With his friends Stuart O'Grady and Matt White joining the Cofis next year, Millar's career has never looked more promising.
 
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