Vuelta Stages 3 & 4: Ventosa & Zabel
Okay. A 1-2-3 punch. Before the finale, David de la Fuente did go on a 200k break-away. But that happens, like, everyday, right? Seems like it at least. The man is something else.
Finish: (1) Ventoso (2) Hushovd (3) O'Grady
Stage 4 was almost as hot, though not nearly as long as the previous day. A few moments ago, the Milram boys gave Erik Zabel a lead-out he appeared determined not to waste. He got on top of his gear early and never let up, powering to the line ahead of Hushovd (C.A.) and J.P Nazon (AG2R) (credit: AFP). This was mighty Thor's third runner-up finish in as many days. Although he retains the Gold leader's jersey, his early Vuelta is looking very much like Boonen's early Tour -- lots of effort, a leader's jersey and, still, no result. Tomorrow, the Vuelta heads into the mountains and it will be a little while before another sprinters' day.
"Finally, everything flowed!" said a happy Zabel, who accomplished his first major victory this season today. "There is a special feeling about this victory because after a difficult season with ten second positions and many third places, to win here is very special. It is also important because this is a new team for me."
Zabel explained that he had to change his mindset throughout the season, and that he was not originally expected to win at Team Milram. "When I went to the team I had the mentality to help Petacchi for the season, but after his crash in the Giro I had to change my focus and try to win again," he said. "I finally have a victory so it is perfect."The old man still has legs! And, judging from the podium photo (credit: AFP), is just not down with the Vuelta's silly hats. Perhaps by the time the race again hits the flat land Ale Jet will have his legs back too. If so, look for the Milram boys to stomp a few more finishes. For now, Zabel sits in P2 just 27 seconds off Hushovd. Tomorrow, though, promises a brand new GC.
Finish: (1) Zabel (2) Hushovd (3) Nazon
GC: (1) Hushovd (2) Zabel (3) O'Grady
Also of Note: Looks like Baden Cooke will be back on the ProTour next year as the UCI has offered Unibet.com a ProTour license, contingent, of course, on financing. Unibet says financing is no problem. It should be interesting to watch Unibet's transition to the (really) big time. Racing the full ProTour calendar is quite a bit different than wildcard participation in a few races. The team will need to bulk up quickly.
More: The Men in Tights are paying props to the Erik as well. For me, what makes Zabel's win today so special is that he never gave up. It's been three years since his last win in a Grand Tour, he hasn't won a ProTour race this year and only one (I believe) in the last two years, and has over twenty second or third place finishes since his last win (Stage 1 of the Bayern Tour). Anyone else with over 200 victories might decide to stop being beaten. Not Zabel. He never quit digging as hard as his 36-year-old legs could dig. And today he schooled the younger crowd, breaking first and holding position. Yep. Milram is a happy binch tonight -- this almost makes their Vuelta. Somehow, though, I suspect there's more to come . . .
Peloton Jim: "He's Back!"
Banshee a-Go-Go: "I guess the old man can still race!"