Vuelta 9: Martin triumphs atop La Covatilla

Mollema moves into red as Wiggins shows his hand

The first ‘real’ summit finish of this year’s Vuelta a España produced the desired effect and sparked fireworks as Garmin-Cervélo’s Daniel Martin took his first Grand Tour stage win at the end of a tough opening week.

The Irishman claimed the spoils for his toil over the final seven kilometres of the stage – when the finishing climb to La Covatilla hit its hardest slopes – beating Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema and Geox-TMC’s Juan Jose Cobo, who finished second and third respectively.

Overnight general classification leader Joaquin Rodriguez lost his red jersey after finishing 49 seconds behind the front group as Mollema gained the overall ascendancy by a single second over the Spaniard.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali now sits in third overall and featured in the finale as did Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins, who now occupies 13th overall and goes into tomorrow’s 40km time trial well poised to make a massive jump on the general classification thanks to his sterling performance on today’s final climb and his prowess against the clock.

Martin sits one place above Wiggins, and the 25-year-old Irishman was ecstatic with his first Grand Tour stage win as he benefited from a gutsy and uncompromising performance in the finale to reap the rewards of persistence in the face of such a tough proposition.

Getting to the main course

After the day’s opening climb, the Puerto de la Cruz di Hierro, Omega Pharma-Lotto man Sebastian Lang instigated the move of the day – the German was joined by local boy Jose Vicente Toribio Alcolea of Andalucia Caja Granada and later Vacansoleil-DCM duo Pim Ligthart and Martijn Keizer to form the leading quartet with 45km traveled.

After 80km of racing the leaders had themselves an advantage in excess of nine minutes, with the peloton content to leave them plenty of leash. 14km later that had dropped to 7:50 and a further 25km down the road, the leading quartet had become a brace of duos, with Ligthart and Lang leaving Toribio and Keizer behind.

With 30km remaining, the gap between the ‘Two Ls’ and their chasers stood at 2:40, with the peloton – unsurprisingly led by the Katusha team of Rodriguez and Dani Moreno – over six minutes behind the leading duo. But as the climb to La Covatilla loomed, that main bunch would soon be split.

And just as those splits occurred, a blast from the past in the form of Andrey Kashechkin found his way to the front, the Astana man revisiting the scene of a success in 2007, when he finished third on the stage to La Covatilla – the last time the Vuelta visited the town.

Ready for the sparks to fly

As the peloton began the climb in earnest, the gap between it and the leading two had decreased to five minutes; with a little over 20km before the finish and neither man a particular mountain goat of note, they would surely be reeled in – it was merely a question of when.

Heading through the town of Bejar, the leaders had themselves four minutes, although it was game over for their chasers, Toribio and Keizer, who were swallowed up and spat out by a peloton blazing in its pursuit of the plucky characters holding court at the front of the race.

When the peloton hit Bejar that gap had been lowered to 3:29 as Katusha continued to lead the field with Moreno and Rodriguez in tow. With the Russian squad’s pursuit of the leaders, that mark continued to fall and dropped to 1:13 when the peloton passed under the 10km-to-go banner.

By that stage Lang had dropped his Dutch companion and continued on his march to the finish, the hardest slopes of the climb still to ride and the big teams – Katusha, Liquigas-Cannondale, Lampre-ISD and Team Sky – charging their batteries for a manic dash to the line. And they needed to; as the bunch passed eight kilometres remaining, the road noticeably tilted skywards and instantly claimed victims on the 12 percent gradient.

Lang himself became a victim a kilometre later when the man who had kicked off the day’s break became the last card to be drawn back into the pack, which was being controlled by Lampre’s fearless troops who continued to set a blistering pace.

It takes one to start the fight

Active in yesterday’s finale, Rein Taaramae was at it again within the final six kilometres, slicing past Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Michele Scarponi at the front of the bunch and chancing his hand at breaking up the group of overall favourites. But the Italian wasn’t going to let the plucky Estonian steal his thunder, and he countered, forcing the remaining big names to follow his lead.

One man not present was Igor Anton, the Euskaltel-Euskadi captain’s poor showing at this Vuelta continuing as he slipped further back. His life wasn’t made any easier when Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step) and Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) hit out hard and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali immediately chased with Van Den Broeck on his wheel.

When they were reeled in, Garmin-Cervélo’s Daniel Martin and his cousin Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) were the next riders to go off the front, with the two working as a good family should and swapping off to try and stay clear.

While Roche dropped back to Scarponi and co, Martin continued his march alone with just four kilometres – but so much suffering – left until the finish. The Irishman was joined shortly afterwards by Vincenzo Nibali, and he worked with the Italian into a stiff headwind to keep the charging peloton behind at bay.

When seven is better than two…

With Christopher Froome dragging his Team Sky captain Bradley Wiggins back to the two leaders, Martin and Nibali’s time at the head of the race seemed limited and 2km from the line, the elite selection at the front that also boasted Van Den Broeck, Cobo and Mollema caught and began working with the hitherto leading duo.

Behind them, Rodriguez was slipping out of contention for the stage win and the overall lead, falling over 40 seconds in arrears while Wiggins forced the pace hard at the front of the race. With 250 metres to go, Martin opened the sprint to the line, kicking hard over the final crest and winning his first grand tour stage and reaping the rewards of his persistence at the front of affairs.

A whopping 49 seconds later Rodriguez rolled over the line, his red jersey just slipping away and with a flat time trial facing the Katusha captain, a place in the podium spots could be gone after tomorrow’s test against the clock. Another man to lose plenty of time was Scarponi, who eventually finished over a minute in arrears.

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