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Whatta Vuelta!

By Leonard Ke

This race continues to be muy exciting, with very close battles for the various jerseys, superb performances by unknown riders, well known riders making Category 5 mistakes, and torrid riding in the mountains.  Add to that the freaky sideshows put on by Mario Cipollini, Ivan Quaranta, and Manolo Saiz, and you have a very entertaining grand tour.

Week One

The opening TTT around Gijon in the northwest coast didn’t surprise anyone as the two best teams in this discipline (ONCE and USPS) ended up in the top 2 places with Banesto and Kelme close behind. But it was the springboard for ONCE as their riders moved to the cabeza dela clase on GC and Points (Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano), Mountains (Jan Hruska), and Team. A great beginning to a nightmare as the ONCE team celebrated its victory and launched their Lider, Galdeano into excellent position. How hard was the TTT? Hard enough to retire Quaranta after 3 km, and send Cipo back to his sand castles: In other words, no muy duro.

The next 2 stages were each exciting in their own way but in the background was a faithful foot soldier riding for ONCE unknowingly preparing himself for the biggest ride in his career. Riding over an unexpectably hard mountain in stage 2, and through heavy rains in stage 3 (which Alessandro Petacchi took with ease), Isidro Nozal got into a long break that was won by Unai Etxebarria and took the gold jersey from his teammate, Joaquin Rodriguez, who had taken it the day before from Galdeano. Three stages, three gold jerseys, three different men. Did this team have any domestiques or were they all riding as team leader? None of this meant anything to Petacchi as he won stage 5 as easily as he won stage 3.

The first ITT revealed the real leader at ONCE, as Nozal took out 1m20s on David Millar, the heavy fave in this event, and 1m37s out of Galdeano, the man Nozal was bringing water to, even while wearing the gold jersey! Things got very interesting as reporters filed stories questioning who was the lider at ONCE…Galdeano or Nozal. Who was to ride for whom? Remember last year’s Vuelta with Oscar Sevilla and Aitor Gonzalez at war with each other while riding in Kelme colors? Roberto Heras rode the TT of his life, limiting his losses to a “mere” 3m35s, which would become vital over the next few days. The following stage saw MB’r Michael Rasmussen take a very hilly stage, ahead of tough roadies; entering the Pyrenees from the south, Nozal fought hard to retain the gold jersey, and answer the question “Would he survive the big mountains”. His performance was receiving approvals from aficionados but Saiz was still leaning towards Galdeano…maybe he knew Nozal would fade in the third week?

Week Two

The week began where week one ended…more mountains, with a finish at Pla d’ Beret in the heart of the Pyrenees. Heras needed to attack Nozal and retrieve some of the time he lost in the TT, and another long TT to go. At the finish, Nozal held his own against Heras even though he was not receiving full support from Saiz. On the final day in the Pyrenees, another series of attacks towards the final kms to Port d’Envilira was handled well by the Man with Size 12 shoes, while Galdeano suffered. With few big climbs ahead and another long ITT, Nozal was looking good IF he was strong enough to make it through the 3rd week. On the next day’s flat dash to Sabadell, Zabel finally beat Petacchi, after a long day in the saddle and ONCE, as usual, on the front. After the rest day, another hard stage to Cuenca featured crosswinds and a small hill before the finish that finished off Petacchi allowing Zabel to win his 2nd stage. On the next day’s ride to Albacete those crosswinds played a huge role for those who were ready for it, like USPS.

Just before crossing a bridge, Postal and Fassa Bortolo were riding together at the head. A km later, Fassa’s main GC hopes, Dario Frigo and Aitor Gonzalez, were in the second peloton chasing a storming 1st peloton driven by Postal and ONCE. Were Frigo and Gonzalez celebrating Frigo’s birthday? By the end, both Frigo and Gonzalez lost 1m08s and would lose more the next day, their morale and legs taking a hammering today. Losing more than a minute, they sought consolation from Petacchi’s win. But the big battle for GC was again being contested mano a mano, in the ITT. Once again, Nozal was the winner, but only by 13s over Millar, and very noticeable, 1m45s over Heras. Was this a trend? The next day’s sprint to Valdepenas was again won by Petacchi, and Postal sat in preparing for the following ride to Sierra de la Pandera. Featuring a steep finish, Heras had to gain as much time as possible to even think of winning, and with about 5kms to go, Heras made another deadly attack that put Nozal on the ropes, but he came back nicely to limit his loss to just over a minute. But it was the third week…

Week Three

On the hilly stage to Sierra Nevada, Heras pull another 54s out of Nozal, but the question was: does Heras need a big hit or a series of tiny cuts? The former would be neat and clean, the latter would cause nail biting on both sides. Fast Forward to  La Vega de Alcobegas, with another steep finish. Continuing to attack, Heras put 1m13s into Nodal who knows the attacks are coming but can only limit his losses. His lead is down to 3m09s with the 12km uphill TT to worry about. But first, there is the road to Collada Vilalba. This dramatic day saw withering attacks by Heras who rode as if there were no tomorrows. Replying to each eventually cracked Nozal, who ended up surrendering 1m33s. Now he was in trouble, only 1m55s in the lead. But surely he wouldn’t lose that much in 12k? But it was not only possible, it was painful to watch, as Nozal struggled to keep his legs turning all the while hearing “Venga! Venga! Venga!” and his losses coming in a steady stream. At the same time, watching Heras fly up the mountain was breath taking. In the end, Nozal lost 2m23s and the gold jersey…but he has left memories for him and the spectators for his Cinderella Vuelta!

The Flyin’ Hawaiian



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