Vuelta 17: Felix flies, Valverde crumbles

Felix Cardenas wins at the Covatilla ski station, but the key action happens behind him as Santi Per

Felix Cardenas wins at the Covatilla ski station, but the key action happens behind him as Santi Per
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Last year's King of the Mountains Felix Cardenas put himself well on the way to repeating that achievement when he won the stage to the Covatilla ski station above Bejar this afternoon. The Colombian was away in a small group almost from the first kilometre of racing in Plasencia, and hung to finish just ahead of the overall favourites closing in behind. Leading the charge was Santiago Perez, who was the only rider to go with race leader and local Bejar hero Roberto Heras when the Liberty Seguros team leader attacked what was left of the peloton with the seven of the 18 uphill kilometres to the Covatilla remaining. The pair quickly distanced second overall Alejandro Valverde, who seems to be running out of gas. Heras and Perez swapped pace-making duties as they strived to put as much time between themselves and Valverde as possible. Only when they were inside the last two kilometres did the very in-form Perez attack the race leader, no doubt knowing that second place was already his and that first place still could be with a tough stage through the Sierra de Gredo to Avila to come tomorrow and another summit finish on Saturday. Perez came in 29 seconds down on stage winner Cardenas, but a vital 32 ahead of Heras, trimming his deficit on the defending champion to 1-13 in the process. Not far behind Heras was Paco Mancebo, whose steadiness could yet earn him a first ever finish on a major tour podium. For a long time there was no sign of Valverde. Unable to follow Heras's initial attack, he had both lost ground and apparently heart. On a steep section with five kilometres left he was weaving erratically behind team-mate Carlos Garcia Quesada, who nursed him home more than two and a half minutes behind Perez. If he had lost another couple of seconds, the Murcian would have not only lost second place to the Phonak rider, but also third to Mancebo. It was that bad a day for him. His team's tactics seemed awry. Javier Pascual Rodriguez attacked the gold jersey group on the approach to Bejar, no doubt intending to provide some support on the final mountain if his leader needed it. But Pascual was caught in Bejar and never seen again. With Jos Cayetano Julia no doubt weary from his stage-winning exertions yesterday, it was a bizarre sacrifice. When Valverde needed support, Garcia Quesada had to come up from behind to provide it. Perhaps riding through the season with just 16 riders is finally taking its toll on Vicente Belda's team. Unlike last year when the momentum was very much with him, race leader Heras now looks as if the finish in Madrid can't come quick enough. Perez has had the beating of him on three crucial stages in the past few days, and must be favoured to gain some more time on Saturday. The final decision, though, will rest on Sunday's final time trial. At the Ford factory TT 10 days ago Heras was two minutes quicker than Perez. The Phonak rider, however, was not in contention then and riding more for Phonak team leaders Tyler Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla. The advantage may be with Heras, but he will do well to hang on now. Stage 17, Plasencia-Covatilla ski station 1 Felix Cardenas (Col) Cafs Baqu 168.8km in 4.52.07 (33.07kph) 2 Santiago Perez (Spa) Phonak 0.29 3 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 1.01 4 Paco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears 1.15 5 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 2.05 6 Angel Gomez (Spa) Costa de Almeria 2.18 7 Jorge Ferrio (Spa) Costa de Almeria 8 Francisco Lara (Spa) Costa de Almeria 9 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 2.45 10 Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Spa) Saunier Duval 3.03 11 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 3.06 12 Carlos Garcia Quesada (Spa) CV-Kelme 3.11 13 Jos Luis Arrieta (Spa) Illes Balears 14 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) CV-Kelme 15 Marcos Serrano (Spa) Liberty Seguros 16 Isidro Nozal (Spa) Liberty Seguros 17 Tadej Valjavec (Slo) Phonak 18 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) T-Mobile 19 Ivan Parra (Col) Cafs Baqu 20 David Plaza (Spa) Cafs Baqu 48 Floyd Landis (USA) US Postal 15.36 83 Cadel Evans (Aus) T-Mobile 25.59 104 Michael Barry (Can) US Postal 31.52 127 Matt White (Aus) Cofidis Overall standings 1 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 63.28.41 2 Santiago Perez (Spa) Phonak 1.13 3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) CV-Kelme 2.15 4 Paco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears 2.16 5 Isidro Nozal (Spa) Liberty Seguros 5.55 6 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 7.56 7 Angel Gomez (Spa) Costa de Almeria 10.08 8 Carlos Garcia Quesada (Spa) CV-Kelme 11.09 9 Manuel Beltran (Spa) US Postal 11.51 10 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 12.25 11 David Blanco (Spa) CV-Kelme 14.09 12 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Vini Caldirola 17.23 13 Marcos Serrano (Spa) Liberty Seguros 19.53 14 Francisco Lara (Spa) Costa de Almeria 19.54 15 Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Spa) Saunier Duval 21.50 16 Floyd Landis (USA) US Postal 23.05 17 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 25.38 18 Jorge Ferrio (Spa) Costa de Almeria 28.16 19 Luis Pasamontes (Spa) Relax-Bodysol 29.46 20 David Plaza (Spa) Cafs Baqu 31.16 Points 1 Erik Zabel (Ger) T-Mobile 148 2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) CV-Kelme 128 3 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 113 Mountains 1 Felix Cardenas (Col) Cafs Baqu 126 2 Roberto Heras (Spa) Liberty Seguros 107 3 Santiago Perez (Spa) Phonak 102
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