TOTANA, Spain (VN) – Pablo Lastras rode away from a four-man breakaway to win Monday’s third stage and claim the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España on another hot day that saw some of the favorites suffer under a bleating Spanish sun.
As Lastras rode to an emotional victory, which he dedicated to fallen Movistar teammate Xavi Tondo, a handful of riders suffered over a pair of short but steep third-category climbs that marked the final half of the 163km route from Petrer to Totana.
Pre-race favorite Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) became unglued on the final climb up the Alto de la Santa and rolled across the line at 3:06 back, giving up 1:23 to the lead GC group that finished 1:43 behind the celebrating Lastras.
“He had a small mechanical problem with his saddle, and coupled with not feeling so great in the heat, well, it added up to losing time,” Geox-TMC sport director Matxin Fernández told VeloNews. “Add that to the time we lost in the TTT, well, it’s not the ideal way to start a grand tour. All is not lost. Tomorrow, if Denis is on a good day, he can take back all he’s lost and more.”
Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) was among a group that limped across the line at 12:19 back while Martin Velits (HTC-Highroad), brother of last year’s third-place podium man, finished 12:50 back, meaning their GC hopes are over even as the Vuelta is just warming up.
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) came in with a group at 12:50 back and was clearly suffering in the heat and hills, but Highroad sport director Jens Zemke said the sprinter ace knew he had no chance to win the stage and wanted to simply get through it.
“He is not sick. We are confident he will come around and win a stage,” said Zemke, who lost Matt Goss in Sunday’s stage with a bad stomach. “If you’re from the Isle of Man, where it’s 20 degrees cooler now, it’s normal that he’s suffering. All the northern Europeans are suffering now.”
The summer heat was ideal for Lastras, who attacked a four-man break near the top of the Alto de la Santa. He opened a 20-second gap over the summit with just over 12km to go, but it was a real drag race with Sylvain Chavanel and Markel Irizar, both solid time trialists, leading the chase.
Lastras widened the gap to 26 seconds on the sinuous descent, but started to lose ground on the flats. With 2km to go, the Movistar veteran stopped to shake out his legs and looked to be cramping, but he nursed a 12-second gap under the red kite to win by 15 seconds to Chavanel.
Lastras, 35, quickly dedicated his fifth grand-tour victory to Tondo, who died in a freak accident in a parking garage while training at Sierra Nevada in May.
“This is for Xavi, for the ones who are close to me and for life, which we all know is precious,” said Lastras, whose last win came in 2008. “I was very motivated for today because it fit my characteristics perfectly. I’ve learned with experience that you respect all your rivals. I attacked on the summit because I wanted to finish alone.”
Lastras carries a 20-second lead to Chavanel going into Tuesday’s Sierra Nevada summit finale but holds a more comfortable margin of 1:55 to Jakob Fulgsang (Leopard-Trek) and more on the top GC rivals.
With three different leaders in three stages so far in the Vuelta, Lastras said he’ll fight to protect the red jersey at the Vuelta’s highest summit.
Stage-hunters on the prowl
Another hot, muggy day and some rough roadside led to challenging race conditions despite a relatively modest race profile.
The 163km stage featured two third-category climbs in an undulating stage across the arid Murcia region of southern Spain. Temperatures tipped into the mid-30Cs and a swift breeze kept riders in constant search of water bottles.
The race was frenetic right from the gun, with attacks coming left and right. An early attack of eight riders was reeled in before five pulled clear.
There were some quality legs in the group: French champion Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Ruta del Sol winner Markel Irizar (RadioShack), Spanish veteran Lastras, Ruslan Pydgornyy (Vacansoleil), and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis).
“We knew it was a good opportunity to get into a break today,” Irizar said at the line. “We worked well together in the group. Lastras attacked us on the climb and me and Chavanel tried to bring him back, but it was impossible.”
They ramped up the speed, opening a gap from 15 seconds to two minutes in four kilometers.
Lastras, who started 14 seconds out of the red jersey, rode most the stage as the virtual leader. Edet lost contact with some mechanical problems, leaving four at the front with a promising gap of six minutes with 46km to go.
The heat and high pace didn’t bode well for some of the sprinters. Cavendish and Kittel both lost contact on the Cat. 3 Alto del Berro at 116km. They never regained contact and rolled in with a group at 12:50 back that also included Taylor Phinney (BMC) and Matt Busche (RadioShack).
Leopard-Trek set tempo on the front to trim the lead to just under four minutes with 30km to go, but there was no one else left to help chase.
Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Cervélo) high-sided over his bike and landed hard on his left hip after hooking his bike with Katusha’s Yury Trofimov with about 30km to go.
“It was a terrible crash! A rider’s pedal was caught in my wheel and I fell going 50kph,” Le Mevel told VeloNews. “I thought I had broken my hip. We will see how I can do tomorrow. I wanted to aim for the top-10 here, now I will see if I will be able to even continue.”
The first of six mountain-top finishes comes early in the 2011 Vuelta. The three-climb, 170.2km fourth stage starts in Baza and finishes at the Sierra Nevada ski area. At 2.112m, it’s the highest point in this year’s Vuelta.
“The stage will show us a lot who has the legs to win this Vuelta a España,” said Garmin sport director Bingen Fernandez. “There will be riders who lose all options for the GC on the first mountain stage.”
The stage climbs right from the gun, tackling the Cat. 1, 2,040-meter Alto de Filabres in the opening 31km. That’s sure to spring stage-hunters and put lagging riders in danger of getting time cut.
The route then rolls across the heart of Andalucia, pushing over the Cat. 3 Puerto de los Blancares at 125.2km. A winding descent brings the peloton to the base of the grinding, 24km climb to Sierra Nevada.
- 1. Pablo Lastras Garcia, Movistar Team (mov), in 3:58:00
- 2. Sylvain Chavanel, Quickstep Cycling Team (qst), at 15
- 3. Markel Irizar Aranburu, Team RadioShack (rsh), at 15
- 4. Ruslan Pydgornyy, Vacansoleil-Dcm Pro Cycling Team (vcd), at 15
- 5. Nicolas Roche, Ag2r La Mondiale (alm), at 1:43