SIERRA NEVADA, Spain (VN) — The first of six mountain-top finishes at the Vuelta a España didn’t produce race-breaking differences, but it revealed that pre-race favorite Igor Antón certainly does not like racing in the heat.
With another day of scorching temperatures, Antón, who hails from the cooler climes of the Basque Country on Spain’s northern coast, struggled up the 24km summit push to the Sierra Nevada ski station in Tuesday’s 170.2km fourth stage.
Spanish climber Dani Moreno pipped Dane Chris-Anker Sorensen to claim the stage victory 11 seconds ahead of the lead group as Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) became the fourth leader in four days of racing.
But all eyes were on the GC contenders.
U.S. champion Matthew Busche rode into the day’s main breakaway and held on until 5km to go, but the move was reeled in by the surging GC leaders on the long, grinding climb high in the barren Sierra Nevada.
Liquigas-Cannondale put Eros Capecchi on the front to turn the screws when Antón was dangling at the back of the 40-rider group. The Euskaltel-Euskadi captain, who crashed out of last year’s Vuelta while wearing the race leader’s jersey, admitted he was suffering.
He lost the wheel with about 7km to go and came across the line ashen at 1:38 back, losing 1:27 to his main GC rivals.
“I am not the same as I was last year,” said Antón, who sunk to 35th at 2:44 back. “I fought to limit the smallest amount of time as possible. There’s still a lot of racing left to go. I have to fight back. These long, grinding climbs are not the best for me.”
Antón will be hoping for a rebound in Wednesday’s fifth stage at Valdepeñas, where he won one of his two stages last year.
Busche’s big break; Moreno powers to win
Busche found himself in the day’s main breakaway just four days into his grand tour debut. The reigning U.S. champion was told to mark big moves early in the stage, which tackled the 2,000-meter Alto de Filabres right from the gun.
“We wanted to have someone in the move if a big group went,” Busche said. “It wasn’t planned that it was going to be me, but I was marking a move and we stayed away.”
Busche joined seven other riders, who opened up a gap of around eight minutes. They hit the base of the final Sierra Nevada climb with more than five minutes. That quickly dwindled to 1:30 with 10km to go as Rabobank and then Liquigas amped up the chase.
Sorensen first surged away with just over 6km to go, with Robert Kiserlovski (Astana) going with him. Busche was still there with three others from the break when the chasing pair caught them with 5km to go.
“I tried to help out when the main group came up to us,” Busche said. “I had so much lactic acid in my legs, I did what I could and then just rode it in. It was a great experience to be out there.”
Sorensen, a solid climber who won a Giro d’Italia stage last year and was sixth in this year’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège, rode alone when Moreno attacked out of the lead group with 3.5km to go.
“I was talking to ‘Purito’ (Joaquim Rodriguez), and he said he was fine and that I could have a chance to win the stage,” Moreno said. “I was feeling good as well, but was a little worried with the crosswinds, because with me, the winds always win.”
Moreno found a good windshield with Sorensen, who tried in vain to ride Moreno off his wheel in the closing two kilometers against buffeting head-crosswinds. The tiny Spaniard stayed hidden behind the 6-foot-1 Dane until he attacked on the final flats with 800 meters to go.
“This is a huge victory for me,” said Moreno, 29, who won a stage and finished second to Katusha captain Rodriguez at the Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month. “I am here to help ‘Purito.’ If one day he gives me freedom again to attack, I will, but we’re all here to help him to try to win this Vuelta.”
Chavanel takes red
Overnight leader Pablo Lastras (Movistar) decided he just didn’t have the fight to try to defend the red leader’s jersey he claimed in Monday’s stage.
“When there were still 40 riders left in the group and I was really suffering, I decided it was better to not bury myself when I would have probably lost it anyway,” said Lastras, who tumbled to 75th at 17:10 back. “I would like to try to win another stage and I will need all my strength for that.”
With Lastras out of the picture, it was Chavanel, who was second to Lastras the day before, who hung on to give the Vuelta its fourth leader in four days.
“I struggled with about 2km to go, but I was playing with the margin that I had over the others,” said Chavanel, who led the Vuelta in 2008 for one day. “Taking this leader’s jersey is a nice bonus after being close to victory yesterday. I come to this Vuelta motivated to try to win a stage and to prepare for the worlds.”
Chavanel leads Moreno by 43 seconds, with day-one leader Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) in third at 49 second back.
In the GC battle, Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) proved he’s in top shape by squirting ahead of the leaders to take third and an eight-second time bonus to climb into 11th at 1:06 adrift.
Defending champion Nibali looked rock solid on the climb and moved into fifth at 53 seconds back.
Yesterday it was two-time Vuelta winner Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) who struggled and today it was Antón. Who knows who it could be Wednesday.
Suffering is certainly in the forecast, with temperatures in the high 30sC and moderate winds. The grinding finale up Valdepeñas, with ramps as steep as 24 percent, is sure to produce more surprises in this Vuelta.