The Vuelta a España just keeps rolling along. The raced entered the Pyrenees, hitting the high mountains for the first time, and then had a spell of rolling stages. The result? The maillot oro ended up on the shoulders of a relative outsider, who has to be considered more of caretaker than a real contender. Egoi Martínez of Euskaltel-Euskadi was the lucky one, who took advantage of a long breakaway and time bonuses to snatch the leader’s jersey away from Astana’s Levi Leipheimer. Cyclingnews’ Susan Westemeyer examines stages seven to 12.
The race favourites – Alberto Contador of Astana, Carlos Sastre of CSC-Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne’s Alejandro Valverde and Leipheimer – all managed to stay close to one another much of the week with a slight advantage going to the two Astana riders. Valverde appeared to lose all his chances on Thursday’s stage when the main group gapped him on the descent of the day’s final climb.
Leipheimer must have felt as everything was going against him in this race. He took the maillot oro in the fifth stage time trial, only to lose it the next day. He won it back on stage seven and lost it the next day when Martínez gathered enough bonus seconds to take the lead by 11 seconds. To top it off, Leipheimer, who has made no secret of the fact that he himself wants to win the Tour de France, had to hear that Lance Armstrong is returning to the peloton – and apparently in an Astana jersey – with the announced intention of winning the Tour yet again.
The main theme of the second week was the breakaway. Escape groups controlled stages seven, eight and nine. The sprinters finally got their chances, taking the last three stages – even if the sprints didn’t always go as planned.
In the mountain rankings, Alessandro Ballan of Lampre won the first Pyrenees stage and took over the red mountain jersey, only to turn it over to David Moncoutié (Cofidis) two days later – both in escape groups, by the way. On the points front, Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) turned the blue jersey over to Valverde for two days, and it ultimately ended up with Greg Van Avermaet of Silence-Lotto, who used – what else – an escape to take it.
Italy’s paolo bettini checks his rivals before coasting across the finish line of stage 12.: italy’s paolo bettini checks his rivals before coasting across the finish line of stage 12.JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images
Paolo Bettini took his second stage victory in the Vuelta a España with a commanding uphill sprint to the line Suances Thursday. But unlike his triumphant victory in Toledo on stage six, this one was tinged with anger as he ended his contract negotiations with his Quick Step team after receiving the news that Stefan Schumacher had been given a contract for 2009.
“The future of Quick Step? Let’s talk about the future of Paolo Bettini!” the Italian said Thursday evening. “The latest declarations made it very clear I won’t be with Quick Step in the next season. This does not please me, because I would have liked to spend another season with Patrick Lefevere and in fact the whole team,” said Bettini.
“I understand that it’s a question of the budget that Patrick has available,” he said although still unhappy about not being signed. “I talked to him for the first time during the Giro d’Italia, and I specifically told him I wanted to ride another year.”
The Italian said that he was working with Lefevere to come to an agreement as late as July. “Then we came to the Vuelta and he still hadn’t made me an offer. I was expecting a bit more sincerity,” Bettini said Thursday evening.
Like his dealings with manager Patrick Lefevere, the atmosphere in 12th stage went from good to bad quickly. The day started out sunny, but conditions changed dramatically, and dark clouds and heavy rain showers pummeled the riders during the race. “It was tough in this weather,” said Bettini, who had targeted both stages before even setting foot into Spain.
Bettini was feeling mixed emotions – on one hand angry and on the other, comprehending a difficult situation for the team and the sport. “I understand the general economic problems and the problems in cycling.”
Despite not being re-signed, Bettini wasn’t concerned about his future. “I am sleeping well at night. Cycling has given a lot to me and I have given a lot to cycling.”
In his ten years with QuickStep, Bettini has taken some great wins. Liège-Bastogne-Liège twice, Milano-Sanremo, two Giri di Lombardia, the Clásica de San Sebastián are just some of his bigger wins. He also was Italian road champion on two occasions. An Olympic title in 2004 was followed by back-to-back wins in the World Championships in 2006 and 2007. He will try to defend the title one more time in 2008, when they are held in his native Italy later this month.
Lefevere defends QuickStep signings
By Gregor Brown
QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere, facing an emotionally charged separation with reigning World Champion Paolo Bettini, defended his decisions on Thursday. The pair will part ways at the season’s end after ten years together when contract negotiations fell through. Bettini was angered that Lefevere signed German Stefan Schumacher, a rider with similar skills as the Italian, but who is seven years younger and in need of a team after his Gerolsteiner squad failed to secure a new sponsor. He ended the negotiations on Thursday.
Lefevere and Bettini have been at odds over a contract extension for 2009 for much of the summer. Bettini, who was going to retire at the end of the season, decided to race another year, but Lefevere felt that Bettini’s price was too high and said the Italian had refused to budge on his demands.
“You can’t say that Schumacher costs the same money as Bettini, it is totally different. His [Bettini – ed.] remarks are not even correct,” Lefevere said to Cyclingnews Thursday.
Lefevere explained that Bettini knew of his budget concerns, and emphasized that he did not choose Schumacher over Bettini. “I already said it in August; I said I am still in negotiation with two guys. Because I signed Schumacher did not mean I did not want Bettini, but is not the same price and it is very different. I am the manager. I am the guy who has to bring the good news and especially the bad news.”
The two did not see eye to eye in contract negotiations. “I was speaking with Paolo at the Giro [d’Italia] and then I was speaking with him at the [Tour de] Wallonie. I said, ‘I have too much respect for you, I am in a difficult position, and you know I have less money.’ I asked him to make a proposition to me. If he says ‘100’ and then says ’98’ – it is not a real proposition – It is not cooperation.”
The duo joined forces with the Mapei squad ten years ago and their run seems to now have come to an end. “It was a great ten years and a good period for me,” said Lefevere. “In the last six years, he brought me a lot of wins.” Despite winning back to back World Championships, Bettini’s number of victories has declined in the past two years, and before stage 12 of the Vuelta on Thursday, he had only three wins this year.
“I think that often riders forget that they are paid for this,” Lefevere underscored. “It is a similar story for football in Belgium; they say they don’t have respect when they are not renewed.”
Bettini, however, felt differently. “It would be normal that after the ten years I represented the team that I would get an extension. But I understand that the market is difficult,” said the Italian. “I am disappointed to find out in mid-September that they are not counting on me.”