Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Astana And Contador Still In Yellow

Race leader Alberto Contador (Astana) saw his lead grow to five seconds over David Herrera (Karpin-Galicia) after Ezequiel Mosquera (Karpin-Galicia) fell out of second, but actually lost time to some of his top challengers.

Contador, who bolted out of the pack to win Monday’s opening stage, lost three seconds to such favorites as Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) as the bunch split in the final sprint to the line.

Cunego slotted into third at five seconds back along with Kirchen and Evans. Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is sixth at eight seconds off the pace.

“As we saw today, this is a highly unpredictable race and anything can happen, so you can never let your guard down,” Contador said. “Ideally, we’ll keep the jersey until the weekend when the race will be decided. Gaining the jersey Monday was a surprise, but we have the team to defend the lead. We’re not afraid to work, and you saw today the team was at the front all day, right where they needed to be.”

Tuesday’s bumpy five-climb course provided an excellent opportunity for attacks, and the aggression came quick and fast.

Michael Albasini (Liquigas) tried twice before making a move stick in the opening 10km. Following him were Joan Horrach (Caisse d’Epargne), Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and José Luís Arrieta (Ag2r-La Mondial).

Landaluze led the way over the Cat. 1 Alto de Ixua at 45km to make sure the mountain jersey stayed with the team; Egoi Martínez conserved the climber’s jersey with Landaluze second.

Astana put its men on the front to keep the break on a short leash, with Landaluze the best-placed at 1:59 back, and the leaders nursed a gap of about three minutes over the second climb at the Cat. 3 Alto de Gonztagarinaga at 66.5km.

Quick Step and Cofidis added fresh legs in the final hour of the chase, but rainfall slickened the roads and gave life to the breakaway’s efforts.

“We knew it would be complicated, especially when we heard Quick Step was collaborating. We were working pretty well together to try to make it to the line to have a shot at victory,” Landaluze said. “We want to win a stage here. We’ll keep trying.”

Fierce counter-attacks began once the move was neutralized with about 10km to go, including a surge by Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) that drew out Contador.

Matej Jurco (Milram) gave it a good shove with 3km to go, but it all came back together for a gradually climbing finishing straight in the last kilometer. Kirchen was well-placed by Barry’s perfect lead-out to take a huge win for the American team.

“We wanted to try to win a stage, so now that we’ve done that, we’ll see how the GC shakes out, but Kim has no pressure on him here,” said Piva. “The most important for Kim is that he’s ready for the classics.”

The 29-year-old Kirchen, a strong time trialist who can defend in the mountains, surprised many last year by finishing seventh overall in the Tour.

“He’ll focus more on the Tour this year than ever before,” Piva said. “We’ll see how far he can go. Right now, he wants to use this race to be at his strongest for the Ardennes. After that, he can regroup for the Tour. This win today is just what he needed.”

The 48th Vuelta al País Vasco continues Wednesday with its longest stage, a 195km romp starting in Erandio over four rated climbs, including a potential race-breaker with the Cat. 2 Alto de Aguilar de Codes just 10km from the finish in Viana.

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