Vuelta 6: Sagan leads Liquigas lashing in Córdoba

Nibali tries to ride into red, but Chavanel holds on

The Liquigas-Cannondale team used their superior descending skills to split the Vuelta a España peloton on the twisting road to Cordoba, allowing Peter Sagan to take the stage victory, while team leader Vincenzo Nibali gained a some precious seconds and moved up to third overall.

Nibali was initially angry that Sagan sprinted to victory, blocking him from taking any of the time bonuses. But Sagan’s acceleration stopped Pablo Lastras (Movistar) from snatching the stage win and so saved the Liquigas-Cannondale team from an embarrassing defeat.

“We did a great job as a team. It wasn’t our tactic (for the stage) but fortunately it came off,” Sagan said. “It would have been better if Vincenzo (Nibali) had won but it was better that a Liquigas-Cannondale rider won rather than Lastras.”

Race leader Sylvain Chavanel finished tenth on the stage, in a chase group at 17 seconds, while most of the other overall contenders were at 23 seconds. The stage had been expected to finish in a sprint but yet again a late climb and the twisting descent created another thrilling finale.

Chavanel actually extended his overall lead on Daniel Moreno (Katusha) to 15 seconds. Nibali is third at 16 seconds. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) is fourth at 23 seconds, Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard Trek) is fifth at 25 seconds and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) is eighth at 49 seconds. Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) is a more distant 20th at 1:26.

Those gaps are likely to stay unchanged after Friday’s 185km seventh stage from Almadén – Talavera de la Reina but the mountains are looming again. Saturday’s stage finish includes three late climbs and Sunday’s ninth stage finishes at the summit of the Sierra de Bejar La Covatilla.

A day in the olive groves

The riders faced another day under the Spanish sun for the stage to Cordoba. The roads twisted and turned through expanses of olive trees, offering little respite from the heat.

Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Team Sky) fought the pain to start the stage after his high-speed crash with a young spectator on Wednesday. However there were more spills early today, with Matti Breschel (Rabobank) going down hard in the neutralised section of the stage. He was forced to retire and headed to hospital for treatment.

Taylor Phinney (BMC) bounced back from his day of suffering in the gruppetto on Tuesday and was one of the first riders to go no the attack. However he was quickly pulled back and then a group of 20 riders went clear after 30km of fast racing. Chavanel was in the move as he tried to neutralise the move and the bunch also reacted, with Liquigas-Cannondale chasing for Nibali.

The average speed of racing for the first hour was over 50km/h but things finally settled down after 70km when Aleksejs Saramotins (Cofidis), Adrián Palomares (Andalucia-Caja Granada), Martin Kohler (BMC) and Yukihiro Doi (Skil-Shimano) got away. The peloton eased and their gap rose to a maximum of 8:00 after 105km. However Garmin-Cervelo and Leopard Trek took over the chase and the gap began to melt in the mid-day sun.

Saramotins took the intermediate sprint in Villafranca but Fabian Cancellara was on the front for Leopard Trek and led the pursuit of the break with huge turns of powerful speed. The Luxembourg team was riding for sprinter Daniele Bennati and GC contender Jakob Fuglsang.

Kohler attacked alone to take the final intermediate sprint in Cordoba in the race finish, with 30km to go but that only split the break and marked the end for the four. Kohler was the last to be swept up on the start of the final climb, as Stuart O’Grady (Leopard Trek) churned away on the front.

David Moncoutié (Cofidis) broke Leopard Trek’s grip on the peloton when he attacked in pursuit of the climbers points. He was first to the summit of the Alto de San Jeronimo but was soon joined by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) and then David De la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step). The race exploded behind them.

They opened a ten-second gap but then the Liquigas-Cannondale team flew down the twisting descent in pursuit. The men in green and white hit the front of the race and almost immediately caused a split at the front. Nibali, Sagan, Agnoli, Capecchi got a gap, with Lastras hanging with them. It was like watching a team pursuit race on the roads of the Vuelta.

Chavanel and Rodriguez tried to chase the attack as other overall contenders hesitated on the descent. But the Liquigas quartet gave it everything all the way to the line, with even Lastras doing his bit on the flat.

It should have been a day of triumph for the Italian team but they almost blew it in the sprint. Sagan saved them from embarrassment but that meant Nibali missed out on the 20-10-8 second time bonuses.

Who knows if that will cost him dear later in the race. He won the 2010 Vuelta by just 43 seconds.

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