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Last night Roberto Heras was trying to play down the significance of today's first summit finish of the Vuelta at the Valdelinares ski station. The defending Vuelta champion insisted that, although the leading contenders for this year's title would most likely emerge, they would probably be upstaged by a rider looking for one day of glory rather than the long-term goal of victory in Madrid.
Well, let's hope for Heras's sake that he is wrong on the second part of his prediction. As he rightly suggested, the favourites for overall victory did emerge on the 9km first-cat climb to Valdelinares, and at the summit there was no question who is strongest of them as Heras himself took a solo victory, 13 seconds ahead of Denis Menchov, with Comunitat Valenciana's David Blanco third.
The Liberty Seguros rider's victory topped off a very impressive performance by his whole team over the closing kilometres, as they closed down the final break of the day, then set about seeing off many of their leader's rivals. The unlucky man in the break was CSC's Jakob Piil, who went clear of three other riders with Crdit Agricole's Eric Leblacher and Discovery's Benoit Joachim on the penultimate climb, the second-cat San Rafael, where their advantage over the peloton was six minutes.
At the summit, with 15km left, their lead was still almost four minutes, but Piil's chances of victory may have gone when Leblacher ploughed into the padded barriers going down into a corner, and Joachim had to take evasive action to avoid him. Piil was left on his own flying to the bottom of the final ascent.
While Piil tried to maintain his advantage at the front, Liberty set to work three minutes behind him. Dariusz Baranowski's fierce pace-setting saw off several key names, including race leader Brad McGee. Joseba Beloki took over from the Pole, and his injection of speed was too much for Aitor Gonzalez. Then Angel Vicioso and Marcos Serrano stepped up to see off several more from the pack chasing Piil, notably Gilberto Simoni.
With 5km to go, Michele Scarponi made good on Liberty's investment in him, reducing the group to just Heras, Menchov, Carlos Sastre and Comunitat Valenciana duo Blanco and Carlos Garcia Quesada. With 2.5km left, Heras accelerated as the climb steepened. Piil was caught and passed with 2km to go, and Heras then rode the rest of the group off his wheel in the final kilometre.
His gap at the finish and the time bonus he received there were just enough to give enough the leader's gold jersey by six seconds ahead of Menchov, a winner on the same climb in last year's Tour of Aragon. Sastre leads the rest already more than a minute down on Heras. With sprints likely on the next two stages, the overall contenders will now be looking to Sunday's 48km time trial at Lloret de Mar, where Sastre should close in on the leading pair.
Stage 6, Cuenca-Valdelinares
1 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros-Wrth 217km in 5.27.20
2 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 0.13
3 David Blanco (Spa) Comunitat Valenciana 0.28
4 Carlos Garcia Quesada (Spa) Comunitat Valenciana 0.42
5 Juan Miguel Mercado (Spa) Quick Step 0.49
6 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears
7 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
8 Jakob Piil (Den) CSC 0.52
9 Marcos Serrano (Spa) Liberty Seguros 1.15
10 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Liberty Seguros
13 Gilberto Simoni (Ita) Lampre-Caffita 1.40
17 Tom Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel
29 Christian Vande Velde (USA) CSC 2.29
50 Michael Barry (Can) Discovery Channel 4.53
1 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros-Wrth 23.42.13
2 Menchov 0.06
3 Sastre 1.01
4 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Saunier Duval 1.03
5 Blanco 1.05
6 Mancebo 1.20
7 Carlos Garcia Quesada 1.33
9 Unai Yus (Spa) Bouygues Telecom
10 Scarponi 1.52
11 Danielson 1.57
14 Simoni 2.05
23 Vande Velde 2.54
45 Barry 6.45
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