Post Stage Analysis

Greipel Wins Crash Fest in Liège
Heavy rain makes for crash-filled Vuelta stage, Cancellara remains in Gold

A "filthy" day of racing even before the final crash

André Greipel of Columbia-HTC won a six-up sprint in Liège after a massive crash split the field inside 3 kilometers to go. Wouter Weylandt of Quick Step finished second, thanks to the help of Matteo Tosatto and Marco Velo who also made it through the roundabout ahead of the crash. Greipel's team-mate Bert Grabsch finished third. Though Fabian Cancellara rolled in over five minutes behind the winner, the race commissaires nuetralized the time gaps, because the crash ocurred within the final 3 kilometers of the stage. The general classification remains unchanged with Cancellara leading Greg Henderson of Columbia-HTC by 6 seconds and Gerald Ciolek of Team Milram by 8 seconds.

The Vuelta paid tribute to the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with this mini-classic running from Venlo to Liège. This plan seemed like a good idea on paper, but rainy conditions made for a lengthy and crash-filled stage. Four riders escaped after 20 kilometers of racing: Lars Boom of Rabobank, Dominik Roels of Team Milram, Javier Ramirez of Andalucia-Cajasur, and Serguei Lagutin of Vacansoleil. The foursome built up a maximum advantage of 11 minutes over the main field who proved content to let the clock run in the wet conditions. Periodic crashes interrupted the progress of the main field with Jakob Fuglsang of Saxo Bank, Gerald Ciolek of Milram, Dan Martin of Garmin-Slipstream, and David Lopez among the victims. Even the breakaway suffered a mishap when Lagutin slid out and took down Roels with him. All proved able to continue, though Charly Wegelius of Silence-Lotto abandoned due to fatigue. Wegelius has ridden a long season this year so far, and quite simply ran out of legs for yet another grand tour.

As the kilometers ticked down to the finish, Garmin-Slipstream and Quick Step worked steadily on the front in the hope of bringing the field back together for a sprint finish. With just over ten kilometers of flat racing between the final climb over the Côte de Saint-Nicolas and the finish, the sprinters' teams saw a chance at the stage victory. Up ahead, Lars Boom meanwhile scooped up the time bonuses in the intermediate sprints and the mountains points. Greedy, that Boom. By the end of the stage, the Rabobank rider had taken over the lead in the mountains classification and will wear the mountains jersey when the Vuelta resumes after tomorrow's rest day.

Over the Alto de Mont Theux, the gap stood at just under 2:00 with around 40 kilometers to go, as the main field slowly reeled in the early break. After crossing the summit and taking the King of the Mountains points, Boom sat up and returned to the main field. Lagutin, his legs done for the day, also dropped back, while Dominik Roels and Javier Ramirez continued. Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil and Karsten Kroon of Saxo Bank tried a move from the main field, but were quickly brought back. Leiuwe Westra of Vacansoleil proved more successful and soon hung suspended between the main field and the two-up break where Roels and Ramirez still worked together. Though Westra steadily gained on the two leaders, the main field driven by Quick Step and Garmin-Slipstream was coming up quickly. Inside 20 kilometers to race, the gap stood at just 25 seconds.

As the main field approached the final climb of the day, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, classics talent Kim Kirchen of Columbia-HTC attacked from the main field. Well-aware of his record in the Ardennes, the bunch proved quick to bring Kirchen back. Xavier Florencio of Cervélo TestTeam was the next to try, and built up a small gap over the main field as the race approached the Saint-Nicolas. Behind him, the field strung out single-file as Quick Step led the chase, and soon Florencio, too, came back to the main field. As the race hit the lower slopes of the Saint-Nicolas, Enrico Gasparotto of Lampre-Ngc attacked. Gasparotto soon built up a gap of around 10 seconds, and with just 5 kilometers left to race, he remained out in front.

But with 4 kilometers to go, it was all back together. Columbia-HTC and Quick Step began to organize at the front in anticipation of the sprint. Rain beat down, the water pooling on the already wet roads. Inside 3 kilometers to go there came a tight roundabout. A tight curve, white paint on the road, and heavy rain added up to a massive crash that took down much of the field. Inevitably, a rider slipped on the wet paint, and the rest fell like dominoes behind him. Six riders escaped the carnage, three from Quick Step and three from Columbia-HTC. Marcel Sieberg and Bert Grabsch of Columbia-HTC set up André Greipel for the sprint, and Wouter Weylandt of Quick Step could not come around. With the win in Liège, Greipel celebrated his sixteenth victory of the season. Bert Grabsch finished third, Sieberg fourth, and Marco Velo of Quick Step fifth.

The commissaires nuetralized the time gaps in the general classification, because the crash occured within the final 3 kilometers. Fabian Cancellara remains in the leader's jersey followed by Greg Henderson of Columbia-HTC at 6 seconds and Gerald Ciolek of Team Milram at 8 seconds. Chris Horner of Astana leaves the race after an examination at a nearby hospital revealed a broken wrist. Alexandre Vinokourov also went to hospital, but will reportedly continue the race. Ezekiel Mosquera of Xacobeo-Galicia was among the casualties, but the team has not released any information about his injuries. Mosquera's team-mate Gustavo Domínguez suffered a deep cut to his lower leg, and the team will evaluate his condition during tomorrow's rest day. Both Samuel Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde crashed, but proved able to continue without incident. No doubt the teams will issue more medical updates tomorrow.

Tomorrow, the Vuelta takes a rest day and transfers to Spain. Racing resumes on Thursday in Xàtiva. See you then!

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Course Preview

Stage 4: Venlo - Liège

Terrain Type: Hilly in the style of the Ardennes classics.
GC Importance: A nervous day for the general classification riders, they will need to ride well, avoid crashes, and watch for threatening breakaways.

The Vuelta pays homage to the Ardennes classics with this stage, which combines elements of the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The stage begins in the Netherlands in Venlo and travels southwest to finish in the Belgian city of Liège. Along the way, the riders face two trips up the Cauberg, the Mont Theux, and the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. Though the finish is flat, the roads in the Ardennes region are constantly up and down and the stage is unlikely to end in a sprint.

Liège has long served as an industrial center in Belgium and is situated in the Meuse River valley. The Côte de Saint-Nicolas sits in the Tilleur neighborhood, where many Italian emigrants live. The Italians came to Liège to work in the many coal mines in the area. The city’s name, Liège, derives in the roundabout way of such things from the Latin and Germanic words for “people,” and it is the second largest city in the French-speaking part of Belgium. Liège remains a center of the steel industry, though steel production proceeds on a far smaller scale than in the past. With this year’s visit of the Vuelta, Liège has hosted all three of cycling’s grand tours, a claim which few, if any, other cities in Europe can make.

Profile Details

The stage departs from Venlo and the first 60 kilometers are flat. Passing through Oensel, the course takes on the up and down character it will have until the finale in Liège. An uncategorized climb just outside Oensel provides a warm-up for the first significant climb of the day, the Cauberg. The Cauberg is the signature climb for the April Amstel Gold Race, and this Vuelta stage will climb it twice.

The first ascent of the Cauberg begins at kilometer 75. The Cauberg climbs for less than 2 kilometers, but reaches an maximum gradient of 11%. The climb starts out gradual, but after just 400 meters, the gradient jumps to 9%. The next 200 meters hit 11%, then 100 meters at 8%. As it crosses the 1 kilometer mark, the Cauberg relaxes to 4%, and then flattens and runs for 500 meters at 1.6%. The Vuelta organizers have given the Cauberg a category 4 rating.

Following the first ascent of the Cauberg, the stage follows a jagged profile for the next 30 kilometers. The terrain in this area is rarely flat and the roads run narrow. The stage passes through Margraten, Mecheten, and Etenaken on route to its second visit to the Cauberg. The riders will hit the Cauberg for the second time at kilometer 116.

After summitting the Cauberg, the course descends and crosses into Belgian territory. A series of uncategorized climbs keep things interesting, and between kilometers 135 and 175, there is rarely a flat section of road to be found. Passing through Perpinster, the course hits a low point, before beginning a steady grind to the next climb of the day, the Mont Theux.

Rated a category 4, the Mont Theux runs just shy of 3 kilometers. It’s a stair-stepping sort of climb, alternating sections of 8% with sections of 2% gradient. The maximum gradient of 10% comes right around kilometer 2 and lasts for about .5 kilometers. The climb summits at kilometer 183.2, and there remains just under 40 kilometers to race.

From the summit of the Mont Theux, the course descends, then climbs a short uncategorized climb, which summits around kilometer 200. A steep drop to the flats follows Mont Theux, as the course crosses into Liège. With just under 15 kilometers to race comes the final climb of the day, the Côte de Saint-Nicolas. The Saint-Nicolas climbs for 1 kilometer at an average gradient of 11%. It provides the final and often decisive climb in the spring classic, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

From the summit of the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, there remains 13 kilometers to race. The course descends steeply and the final ten kilometers are flat. A small group, likely composed of classics specialists, should survive to contest the finish here.

Who To Watch

In anticipation of this year’s hilly World Championship course in Mendrisio, a number of classics riders have decided to take the start of the Vuelta. The startlist boasts two past winners of the Amstel Gold Race, Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Ngc and Fränk Schleck of Saxo Bank. Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d’Épargne and Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank, meanwhile, have both won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Both Andy Schleck and Valverde may hold back on this stage in favor of riding well in the general classification, but Cunego has Mendrisio square in his sights and little ambition for the overall at this year’s Vuelta. Look for the Italian who has suffered through an uneven season so far to ride aggressively on this stage.

If Valverde chooses to play the waiting game, Caisse d’Épargne can also rely on Joaquim Rodriguez. Rodriguez finished second behind Andy Schleck at this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The Caisse d’ Épargne rider is a former Spanish National Champion and has one previous Vuelta stage win to his credit. Rodriguez also won the mountains classification at the Vuelta in 2005. He doesn’t have a killer sprint on a flat finish like this one, but the hilly course will suit him well.

Saxo Bank also has a deep team for this stage. In addition to Fränk and Andy Schleck, the Danish team is bringing Karsten Kroon and Alexandr Kolobnev to the Vuelta this year. A strong team rider, Kroon finished second in this year’s Amstel Gold Race and has always ridden well in the Ardennes races. Kolobnev, meanwhile, finished in the top ten at both the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège and received the silver medal at the 2007 World Championship road race. With four riders suited to the hilly terrain of the Ardennes, Saxo Bank will almost certainly play a role in the finale of this stage.

Local boy Philippe Gilbert of Silence-Lotto finished fourth at this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and this stage passes over some of Gilbert’s regular training roads. The French-speaking Belgian is a talented one day rider with two Omloop het Volk victories, a win at Paris-Tours, and a visit to the podium at the Ronde van Vlaanderen to his credit. Known for his tactical savvy, Gilbert rides well in the short, steep climbs of the Ardennes, and has a nice turn of speed at the line. The Silence-Lotto rider is preparing for Worlds, where he should rank among the favorites on the difficult Mendrisio course.

Over at Columbia-HTC, Kim Kirchen is also preparing for the World Championships in Mendrisio, where he will ride for Luxemburg with Andy and Fränk Schleck. Kirchen has won La Flèche Wallonne and is a former National Champion in both the road race and the crono in Luxemburg. The talented all-arounder has ridden a quiet season so far this year, and a stage win here wouldn’t hurt.

Others: Dutch cyclocross talent Lars Boom of Rabobank, who is making his grand tour début, Carlos Barredo of Quick Step, Oscar Freire, who has the speed for the flat finish and the power for the short climbs, Manuel Quinziato of Liquigas-Doimo, Ryder Hesjdahl of Garmin-Slipstream, Sylvain Chavanel of Quick Step, Dominique Rollin of Cervélo TestTeam, and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Gavia (updates to this preview will be made during the race and especially the day before the stage with current analysis)<-->