Post Stage Analysis

Cunego Wins at Aitana
Cunego takes first mountain stage, Evans new race leader

9 Big Photos from Stage 8sirotti

Damiano Cunego of Lampre-Ngc celebrated a surprise victory on the Alto de Aitana, the first mountain-top finish of this year's Vuelta a España. The Italian, who has not won a grand tour stage since 2004, attacked inside the final 3 kilometers and stayed away to the finish. Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto led a small group of general classification favorites across the line and the Australian took over the Gold Jersey of race leader. Evans leads Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d'Épargne by 2 seconds and Samuel Sánchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi by 8 seconds. American climber Tom Danielson of Garmin-Slipstream had a good day out in the mountains and now sits fourth in the general classfication, 13 seconds behind Evans.

A group of six riders escaped early in the stage, which included eight categorized climbs. Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil, Sébastian Hinault of AG2R-La Mondiale, Peter Weening of Rabobank, William Bonnet of Bbox Bouygues Télécom, Paul Voss of Milram, and David Moncoutié of Cofidis built up a maximum advantage of 14 minutes over the main field. The Caisse d'Épargne team of race favorite Alejandro Valverde soon took things in hand and steadily chipped away at the lead riders' advantage. At the base of the Puerto de Tudons, the second-to-last climb of the day, the gap had fallen to 5 minutes and Caisse d'Épargne began to increase the pressure. Fabian Cancellara, who took over the race lead after yesterday's time trial, found the pace too hot on the Tudons and went out the back of the main field. Up ahead, David Moncoutié of Cofidis and William Bonnet of Bbox Bouygues Télécom continued to push the break, and the six riders still held 4:30 over the main field as they reached the summit of the Puerto de Tudons. There remained just under 30 kilometers of racing to the summit of the Alto de Aitana.

Down the descent from the Puerto de Tudons, Caisse d'Épargne drove the main field. Samuel Sánchez suffered an uncharacteristic crash on the descent. After a bike change, the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider faced a hard chase to rejoin the race favorites, but the talented descender soon made it back. Passing the sun-bleached town of Sella, the front riders approached the final climb of the day, the Alto de Aitana. With 21 kilometers of uphill racing to go, the early break still held an advantage of 3:21 over the Caisse d'Épargne-led field.

As the breakaway hit the lower slopes of the final climb, Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil attacked. The Dutch Vacansoleil team have certainly earned their wildcard invitation to this Vuelta a España with their frequent presence in the breakaways and attacking style. Behind the solo Hoogerland, a group of three, including Peter Weening, Sébastian Hinault, and David Moncoutié chased, while the other early escapers dropped back. Soon only Moncoutié remained and the French climber joined Hoogerland on the front. From behind, David de la Fuente of Fuji-Servetto and Iñigo Cuesta of Cervélo TestTeam attacked from the main field in an effort to bridge. With 13 kilometers to race, Hoogerland and Moncoutié rode 2:20 ahead of the main field.

But the advantage of the break was falling all the time, thanks to the efforts of Caisse d'Épargne, who continued to turn the screws on the front of the main field. Many rides began to feel the effects of the Spanish team's tempo and the numbers began to dwindle in the favorites group. Pedro Herrero, who started the day 3rd in the overall classification, Fränk Schleck, Jakob Fuglsang, Carlos Barredo, and Alexandre Vinokourov were among the early casualties of the Caisse d'Épargne effort. With 10 kilometers to race, the gap to Moncoutié and Hoogerland had fallen below 2:00. Cuesta and De La Fuente, meanwhile, remained suspended between the break and the main field, but never gained much more than 10 seconds. Soon, only Moncoutié and Hoogerland remained out in front.

With 6 kilometers to go, David Moncoutié dropped Johnny Hoogerland and continued on alone in a bid for the stage victory. With an advantage of 1:30 over the main field, Moncoutié was in with a chance. In the main field, meanwhile, the numbers continued to shrink, and Sylvester Szmyd of Liquigas-Doimo came to the front to make tempo for Ivan Basso. Predictably after Szmyd's solid set-up work, Basso put in a dig to split the favorites group. Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, Robert Gesink, Samuel Sánchez, and Tom Danielson proved quick to follow the Italian. As the group reformed, a counter-attack came from an unexpected rider. Damiano Cunego has ridden a quiet Vuelta a España so far and together with team-mate Paolo Tiralongo, the Italian made the selection on the final climb of the day. With 3 kilometers to race, Cunego countered the accleration from Basso and went up the road.

Up ahead, Moncoutié still rode alone. The French rider certainly hoped for the stage victory after his long day out in the break, but behind him, Cunego closed in quickly. Just inside 1 kilometer to go, Cunego flew over the top of Moncoutié, ending the French rider's dream of stage victory. Moncoutié has ridden many breakaways in his career, and only a precious few have ended with podium kisses. With the stage victory in sight, Cunego accelerated to the line and celebrated his first grand tour stage victory since the 2004 Giro d'Italia. His smile at the line showed his satisfaction at the long-awaited victory. In an interview during the rest day, Cunego said he he had good legs. He described the first three stages of the Vuelta as more like the Northern classics than the Vuelta, but he had used the stages to find his race rhythm. Though the stage from Venlo to Liège raced over familiar territory for Cunego, who has won the Amstel Gold Race, he explained that he had not expected to contend for victory there, because the course was not difficult enough. Instead, he was waiting for the "harder stages in Spain." It was well worth the wait for the Italian, who has suffered an up and down season this year, and today celebrated his most important victory of the season to date.

David Moncoutié finished second, and though he missed the stage victory, the French climber added to his points total in the Mountains classification, which he now leads. Behind the two leaders, Robert Gesink of Rabobank attacked the favorites group and held a small gap to the line to finish third. Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto won the sprint for fourth ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sánchez. Six seconds later, Tadej Valjavec of AG2R-La Mondiale led a group of six riders across the line. The group included Ivan Basso, Ezequiel Mosquera, Joaquim Rodríguez, Thomas Danielson, and Paolo Tiralongo.

With his fourth place finish today, Cadel Evans takes over as the new race leader. He leads Alejandro Valverde by 2 seconds and Sánchez by 8 seconds. Evans also leads the Combination classification ahead of Damiano Cunego. David Moncoutié, meanwhile, is the new leader in the Mountains classification after his big ride today in the breakaway. The Points classification remains unchanged with André Greipel leading Tom Boonen and Tyler Farrar.

Pre-race favorite Andy Schleck abandoned the race today due to flu symptoms. The Saxo Bank rider explained, "I have not been feeling well and I have had all symptoms of the flu since last night and I have not been able to eat anything before today's stage. Naturally I felt weak and drained for energy today and it made absolutely no sense to finish the stage feeling like this." Kim Kirchen of Columbia-HTC also left the Vuelta today.

Here is the current general classification:
Cadel Evans Silence-Lotto
Alejandro Valverde Caisse d'Épargne :02
Samuel Sanchez Euskaltel-Euskadi :08
Tom Danielson Garmin-Slipstream :13
Robert Gesink Rabobank :29
Ivan Basso Liquigas-Doimo :46
Damiano Cunego Lampre-Ngc 1:26
Haimar Zubeldia Euskaltel-Euskadi 1:37
Ezequiel Mosquera Xacobeo-Galicia 1:46
Juan José Cobo Fuji-Servetto 2:03

Tomorrow the mountains continue at the Vuelta with seven categorized climbs on the profile. The stage runs between Alcoy and Xorret del Catí. The final climb of the day, the Alto Xorret del Catí is short and steep with gradients hitting 20%. Then, it's a descent to the finish. For more details on tomorrow's stage, please turn the page.

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Course Preview

Stage 8 Alzira - Alto de Aitana

Terrain Type: Mountainous. ¡Eight categorized climbs!
GC Importance: A potentially decisive stage for the general classification.

The Vuelta heads into the Sierra Aitana mountains for it first mountain-top finish of the race. This stage is a doozy with eight categorized climbs, including the finish on the Especial Alto de Aitana. Arguably the hardest stage of this Vuelta, this stage is make-or-break for the general classification riders, and significant time gaps could open by the summit of the final climb.

The start town of Alzira sits just south of Valencia in hot, dry country inland from the coast. Rainfall comes infrequently in flash floods and drought is frequent. All the same, Alzira is known for its agriculture and its oranges in particular. Situated along the banks of the Jùcar river, the city dates from the early centuries of the Common Era, and served as an administrative center for the Moors, who ruled the area for nearly 500 years. During the Crusades, James I of Aragon besieged and conquered the walled city in 1242. Alzira sits in the shadow the Sierras de la Murta, de Corbero, and las Aguyas and the surrounding terrain is a disordered mélange of steep mountains and canyons.

The final kilometers of the 1558 meter Alto de Aitana is closed to the public, because of a radar installation on its peak, but the climb has twice hosted a stage finish for the Vuelta a España in recent years. In 2001, Danish rider Klaus Möller of Milaneza won the stage ahead of Gilberto Simoni of Lampre-Daikin. Oscar Sevilla of Kelme-Barclaycard led the overall classification by just 25 seconds ahead of Angel Casero of Festina. The next visit to the Alto de Aitana came in 2004, when Leonardo Piepoli of Saunier Duval-Prodir won by 4 seconds ahead of Roberto Heras of Liberty Seguros. Alejandro Valverde finished sixth that day, 29 seconds behind Piepoli. Floyd Landis, meanwhile, lost time, but managed to defend the lead in the general classification ahead of Manuel Beltran and Francisco Mancebo.

Profile Details

The stage rolls out from Alzira and heads south through the jumbled terrain of the peninsula tipped by Cap de Nao that juts out into the Mediterranean. Subterranean collisions have twisted and distorted the terrain and it rarely sits flat. The first 15 kilometers from the start in Alzira to the first intermediate sprint at Xàtiva are relatively flat. The remainder of the stage rides against the grain of the terrain over eight categorized climbs.

From Xàtiva, the course continues south, and passes through Castellò de Rugat and Salem. The first climb of the day starts in Salem. The category 3 Alto de Benniarès climbs 270 meters over 4.5 kilometers and has an average gradient of 6%. The Alto de Benniarès is short and steep and should provide a wake-up call to the legs and a warning of the upcoming obstacles. The Benniarès summits at kilometer 52.6 with 152 kilometers to race. From the summit, the course descends 12 kilometers.

Then, it’s back to climbing. The geology resembles the Dolomiti in Italy here, and crenellated rock spires carved by wind and rain crown the mountaintops. The next two climbs of the day come back-to-back, with only a 5 kilometer descent to break the rhythm. The course passes through Benniarès and begins the category 3 Alto de Mangarida. The Mangarida climbs 290 meters over 7.4 kilometers and has an average gradient of 4%. The summit comes at kilometer 71.4, and after a brief descent of less than 5 kilometers, it’s on to more climbing.

The course continues to wind south and at kilometer 76, the race reaches the third categorized climb of the day. The Alto de Tollos receives a category 2 rating from the organizers for this Vuelta, and it climbs 230 meters over 4 kilometers. The Tollos has an average gradient of 6% and summits at kilometer 80.

Passing over the Alto de Tollos, the course bends slightly east to pass through Facheca. From Facheca, road descends gradually over the next ten kilometers, coming to rest at the base of the fourth climb of the day, the Alto de Castell de Castells. Rated a category 3, the Alto de Castell de Castells ascends 225 meters over 5.7 kilometers. The climb has an average gradient of 4% and summits at kilometer 100.7.

After reaching the summit of the Alto de Castell de Castells, the course descends for the next 20 kilometers. The stage passes through Tàrbena and Callosa d’En Sarrià. The Vuelta is now in the neighborhood of Alicante, and three categorized climbs remain before the stage finish on the Alto de Aitana. The fifth categorized climb of the day begins just outside Callosa d’En Sarrià at kilometer 123.

The Alto de Guadalest carries a category 2 rating. The road climbs 450 meters to the village of Guadalest which boasts a castle. The climb covers 8 kilometers and has an average gradient of 5.5%. The Guadalest is new to the Vuelta and lies not far from the better-known Col d’Rates. From the summit of the Alto de Guadalest, there remains 73.7 kilometers to race.

From Guadalest, the course descends 3 kilometers to Benimentall and the beginning of the next climb of the day. For those playing along at home, we have now reached climb #6. The Alto de Cofrides climbs 420 meters from Benimentall. At 12 kilometers, the Alto de Cofrides is a grinder. It carries a category 3 rating and has an average gradient of 4%. The power climbers will like this one, but its gradual slopes likely preclude a decisive attack. the Alto de Cofrides summits at kilometer 146, and there remains 58 kilometers to race. Nearly half of that distance is uphill.

After just six kilometers of descending, road tilts up again. The Alto de Tudons, climb #7, carries a category 2 rating. The course passes through the village of Alcoleja and the riders will see the turn-off for the final climb of the day, the Alto de Aitana. But first, they will climb Alto de Tudons, which reaches an elevation of 1025 meters. The 7.3 kilometer Tudons has an average gradient of 5%. The climb summits with just under 45 kilometers to go.

A long, gradual descent follows the Alto de Tudons, and the riders will have 22 kilometers to prepare their legs for the final climb of the day. The course passes through Relleu over less-than-stellar roads before reaching the start of the finishing climb. The Alto Aitana begins at kilometer 182.4. Only in the Vuelta, there is an intermediate sprint in Sella, 4 kilometers after the final climb begins.

At last, we come to the finale. The Alto de Aitana is a 22.3 kilometer long grinder, which begins outside Sella at 280 meters of elevation and finishes on high at 1525 meters above sea level. The Aitana has an average gradient of 6%. There is a brief flat section along the way, so the actual gradients are a bit steeper. The base of the climb winds up through orange groves which give way to pines in the higher elevations. The final kilometers of the Aitana are above tree level and the dry, windswept peak is laid bare to the elements. With its radar towers at the summit and tree-less upper slopes, the Aitana resembles Mont Ventoux, though Ventoux is steeper. Cut into the side of the mountain, the road climbs at a steady gradient and offers few opportunities for recovery. A left-hand switchback announces the steep ramp to the finish. Bold prediction: A climber will win on the Aitana.

Who to Watch

Only a climber could love this stage profile with its incessant climbing. The climbs stack up one after the other with little breathing space between them. Many of the teams will be hard-pressed to support their general classification hopes over this terrain, and we can expect to see significant attrition in the bunch over the course of the day. Non-climbers need not apply. It’s an important day for the general classification riders, of course, and that will complicate the efforts of any breakaway to survive to the finish.

Names to watch: Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d’Épargne, Samuel Sanchez and Igor Anton of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Robert Gesink of Rabobank, Jakob Fuglsang and Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank, Ivan Basso and Sylvester Szmyd of Liquigas-Doimo, Ezekiel Mosquera of Xacobeo-Galicia, Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto, Dan Martin of Garmin-Slipstream, Haimar Zubeldia of Astana, David Moncoutié and Amaël Moinard of Cofidis, Rémy DiGregorio of Français des Jeux, and Tadej Valjevec of AG2R-La Mondiale.

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