Vuelta 20: Bennati victorious in Vitoria

Geox shuts down Sky attacks, Cobo holds onto Vuelta overall

 Leopard Trek’s Daniele Bennati has been a frustrated sprinter at this year’s Vuelta a España but victory beckoned in Vitoria on stage 20 on Saturday afternoon and he ensured he wouldn’t leave the race empty handed with an impressive win in the Basque city.

The Italian prevailed in a long sprint over Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Damiano Caruso (Liquigas-Cannondale), who finished second and third respectively, with Garmin-Cervélo rider Sep Vanmarcke fourth and Skil-Shimano’s Koen De Kort fifth.

Bennati recognised how hard today’s stage was for a sprinter aiming for victory and thanked his teammates for their efforts throughout the day, particularly in the final 50km. “Today is the penultimate stage; there’s been a lot of climbing in this stage for a sprinter… But for me it’s a win for the team,” Bennati said immediately after the stage.

The man who won two stages and the points classification at the 2007 edition of the Vuelta did it the hard way, spending much of the day in the 26-man break that formed before dropping back into the protective custody of his Leopard-Trek squad that controlled proceedings in the finale to ensure Bennati claimed a win in this year’s race.

Despite Chris Froome’s calls for an attacking day to chase the general classification lead, the red jersey remained on the shoulders of Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) at day’s end, the Vuelta champion elect well protected by his teammates to ensure the Spanish squad would go into tomorrow’s stage with little with which to concern themselves except a celebration.

There had been a 13-second margin between the two heading into the penultimate day, which prompted the Team Sky rider’s claim that he could make something of the day’s offerings but in reality it was going to prove a mountain too high against a Cobo in top condition and extremely motivated to take the biggest victory of his career on home turf.

Last chance hotel

It may have boasted a flat finish but the penultimate stage of this year’s Vuelta still had its fair share of climbing – a brace of first category ascents in addition to a category two and three climb, which offered something for the men desperate to take their shot at a stage win late in the event.

This was reflected in the number of noted climbers getting themselves into the day’s break, which detached itself from the peloton early in the stage, as the overall heavyweights looked to conserve ahead of what promised to be an interesting finale.

With Froome and Cobo separated by the aforementioned 13 seconds, there was the possibility of fireworks near the finish, although 26 men were keen to try their luck the hard way – in the break – before that point.

Those men were: Damiano Caruso (Liquigas-Cannondale), AG2R La Mondiale pair Nicolas Roche and Lloyd Mondory, Jose Vicente Toribio Alcolea (Andalucia Caja Granada), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) and Euskaltel-Euskadi riders Inaki Isasi Flores and Amets Txurruka.

Leigh Howard (HTC-Highroad) was trying his luck in the move again, along with Katusha trio Vladimir Karpets, Eduard Vorganov and Luca Paolini; Lampre - ISD was represented by Marco Marzano, Daniele Righi and Manuele Mori while Leopard Trek’s Daniele Bennati was in the mix, as was Pablo Lastras Garcia (Movistar), Jan Bakelants and Kristof Vandewalle (Omega Pharma-Lotto).

Also present were Matteo Carrara (Vacansoleil-DCM), Robert Kiserlovski (Astana), Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo and Steven Kruijswijk, Saxo Bank-Sungard had Jaroslaw Marycz and Nick Nuyens while Koen de Kort was representing Skil – Shimano and Christophe Le Mevel flew Garmin-Cervélo’s flag.

After 99km of racing the 20-man move had itself a lead of 4:10 but unsurprisingly with 70km until the finish that had dropped to 1:27. That mark dipped below a minute with 55km remaining as it became obvious the peloton was preparing to stretch its legs on the final climb of the day, the category one Puerto de Urkiola.

That was down to 36 seconds, with 52km remaining, and as expected the break was on its knees on the opening slopes of the Urkiola. It was Barredo’s cue to go solo from the leading group, hitting out ahead of his fellow escapees, who were being swamped by the peloton.

The Spaniard had 53 seconds on the peloton with 48km to go to the finish, battling slopes that touched 15 percent in sections and putting in a brave showing on the final categorised climb of this year’s Vuelta. He added 22 seconds to his lead over the peloton during the following kilometres in a sign that he was motivated to throw everything at the stage win.

Carlos runs into flat finale fun

Having crested the Urkiola, Barredo set about consolidating his lead on the descent and subsequent flat run to Vitoria with a slender lead of 36 seconds over the remnants of the break, with the peloton a further minute behind. Trailing him by 43 seconds with 40km remaining was a seven-man group of chasers that included teammate Kruijswijk, plus Kiserlovski, Le Mevel, Roche, Caruso and Txurruka.

Undeterred, Barredo continued his run to the line and with 35km until the finish he still had 27 seconds on the chasing group – not a heavy buffer but a lead he would fight gallantly to protect as Vitoria – and victory – beckoned. That advantage sat at 33 seconds with 31 clicks remaining but the peloton, led by Leopard Trek, had moved to within 20 seconds of the chasers.

The proximity of the peloton to the chasers caused some consternation in the group and before long the septet was caught, the dream over with exactly 30km before the finish. It wasn’t a good sign for Barredo’s chances of staying away but with about half a minute separating him from the main field, the likes of Leopard Trek and Team Sky called a temporary halt in hostilities to prepare for the hectic finale.

It was a case of marking time for the sprinters’ teams leading into the final 20km of the stage as Barredo continued his doomed run to Vitoria, which would come to an end with 15km remaining when he was caught by a solo Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC), but not before Froome and Cobo had shaped up to battle the final intermediate sprint in pursuit of precious bonus seconds, which ended in a no-contest.

Their die cast, it was time for Sastre and Barredo to work together and with 10km remaining they had 31 seconds over the peloton. That was reduced by just one second a kilometre later and had hit 23 seconds with eight clicks until the finish. At that point Barredo put up the white flag and left Sastre to his own devices out front, with a feisty field bearing down on the lone Spaniard.

His bolt shot, Sastre’s resistance ended with just under three kilometres remaining, which was time for Leopard Trek to go back to work for Bennati; coming into the final kilometer, the plan seemed to be working to perfection and with the Italian’s overwhelming strength in the finale he was able to open a long sprint and hold on to take a sought-after stage win.

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