PIC BY SAUNIER DUVAL
Spain may have lost one fast-finishing Cantabrian from the Vuelta when Oscar Freire decided to miss the country's national tour last week, but another has stepped into the breach. The likes of Thor Hushovd, Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen were all caught out when Francisco Jos Ventoso started his sprint early as the Vuelta field hurtled into Almendralejo and finished just clear of the pack. Hushovd did get some consolation as the bonus seconds available for second place boosted his overall lead to 11 seconds.
"I always try to give my best," said 24-year-old Ventoso, after he claimed the biggest win of his young career. "I won through sheer hard work."
Victory almost went to his Saunier Duval team-mate David Millar, who attacked in the final kilometre but was chased down by Zabel's Milram team as the course twisted into the finish. For the second day in a row, however, Milram's efforts were in vain after Italian champion Paolo Bettini won Sunday's stage into Cordoba.
"I'm very satisfied," said Bettini of his seventh victory of the season. "It's my first victory with the 'tricolore' jersey, a good signal for the world championship. I'm a fast rider but I'm not a pure sprinter. My races are the Classics. However, when my condition is good I like to give the bunch sprints a go.
"With regard to the world championship, everybody says that the parcours of the Worlds is perfect for me. I'm happy about this, it means that the peloton has a lot of respect for me. But I'm sure I will have many rivals there."
Tuesday's stage takes the race to the beautiful Extremaduran city of Caceres, before the Wednesday's first escapade into the mountains on the Covatilla above Bejar, home town of the rider stripped of last year's Vuelta title, Roberto Heras. It will be interesting to see what kind of a reception the race gets from Heras's fans, who protested vociferously after the former Liberty Seguros rider tested positive for EPO last October.
On the racing side, the Covatilla should also provide a first indication of the likely contenders. CSC's Carlos Sastre, runner-up last year, looks in good shape after his team won the short team time trial in Malaga on Saturday, but Astana and Caisse d'Epargne have a number of riders who are sure to push the CSC leader hard.
Stage 3, Cordoba-Almendralejo
1 Francisco Jos Ventoso (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir 220km in 5.43.45
2 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole
3 Stuart O'Grady (Aus) CSC
4 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
5 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
6 Danilo Napolitano (Ita) Lampre
7 Luca Paolini (Ita) Liquigas
8 Pedro Horrillo (Spa) Rabobank
9 Aurlien Clerc (Swi) Phonak
10 Jean-Patrick Nazon (Fra) Ag2r
1 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole 10.10.33
2 O'Grady 0.11
3 Ventoso 0.12
4 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step 0.14
5 Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor) CSC 0.19
6 Nicki Sorensen (Den) CSC
7 Lars Bak (Den) CSC
8 Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe) CSC
9 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
10 Volodymir Gustov (Ukr) CSC
PIC BY SAUNIER DUVAL