Sunday, August 27, 2006

Vuelta Stage 2: Bettini Comes Through

On paper, Stage 2 promised a bunch sprint finish. Although an early break left Mario Sarraga of wildcard entry Relax-GAM with the Climber's Jersey, the race did not disappoint once the group was caught. As the race hit Cordoba, the Peloton was hammered almost single file. Once American Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) swung off the front (making pace for McEwen), three of the Milram boys took over and turned hella-pace for Herr Zabel, who sat fourth wheel looking good for the sprint.

At about 250-300 meters to go, Zabel took off but couldn't quite get on top of his gear. Zabel's break was early and his mediocre jump left a window for the other big boys. They quickly powered through it. The God of Thunder was there for Credit Agricole and Stuey O'Grady was taking a shot for CSC. It was, though, the Pimpernel who grabbed the front and looked to come good on the line, but Zabel's early break may have forced McEwen to go about 50 meters too early for his legs. Also in the mix was Uros Murn (Phonak), right off McEwen's left shoulder. About 50 meters before the line, Murn gassed and veered left, opening a gap through which powered Italian Champion Paulo Bettini. Bettini clearly surprised McEwen and Robbie just sat up as Bettini rolled through and across the line for a terrific win (photo credit: AFP). Hushovd, digging hard as usual, took second; Paolini came home third for Liquigas.

Carlos Sastre had an uneventful ride until he punctured within 2k of the finish. Somehow, Sastre got back to the bunch -- which, in fairness, was strung out over a kilometer or so -- and lost no time apart from the time bonuses on the line, which he was not going to challenge for in any event. Throughout the stage, Hushovd grabbed bonus seconds at the sprints and, added to the time bonus he earned at the finish, mighty Thor is the new Gold Jersey of the 2006 Vuelta. Bettini sits in second and Sastre is third, seven seconds back.

Also of Note: Two spills in the Peloton today -- David George (Relax-GAM) went down at 116k but was quickly up and on his way. More dramatic was Walter Beneteau's (Bouygues Telecom) crash at 48k. Although Beneteau went down very hard, he managed to get back on his horse. It remains to be seen whether the incident will lead to an abandon down the road. It was a very hard fall.

Today's Finish: (1) Bettini (2) Hushovd (3) Paolini

: (1) Hushovd (2) Bettini (3) Sastre

Tomorrow: Córdoba - Almendralejo, 219 Kms. A couple more Cat. 3 climbs and, God willing, another bunch sprint.