Look cycling fans: the Alejandro Valverde punching bag.
A half dozen riders took vicious shots at Valverde on the 157k stage from Granada to La Pandera. In the end, nothing worked: no knockouts, no time gains. Ivan Basso (Liquigas) was the first to hit the Spaniard, then Cadel Evans (SIlence-Lotto) went to the front and took a swing. Neither had the power or acceleration to force a big gap but the furious pace put Valverde in trouble.
When the gap opened, Robert Gesink (Rabobank) was the next to deliver a punch. Valverde hasn’t been hit this hard since the Italian Olympic Committee smacked him with the two year ban that forced him out of the Tour de France. The Golden Jersey wearer was isolated, the climbing grade reached 13% and for a kilometer the Vuelta looked up for grabs. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) saw his chance to jump onto the podium and he went hard. For the first time, Samuel Sanchez thought the golden jersey was possible and he accelerated up the road. The punches were coming fast and furious. It was “Let’s Beat Up Alejandro Day.”
Whatever your opinion of Valverde’s doping allegations, there is not questioning his talent and his mental toughness. He knew this La Pandera climb; he’d won it before and slowly but surely he pulled himself back to Basso and Evans. Vuelta done for them. Then the Caisse d’Epargne rider shower his immense strength, closing on Gesink and passing the young Rabobank rider. Sanchez and Mosquera were still ahead but Valverde found his rhythm and craved up their advantage. By the finish line, it was cycling-pugilist Valverde who’d out-punched all his rivals. It wasn’t Mohammad Ali’s Thrilla in Manilla but it was the Pandera Punch-out.
Ohh, we forgot about the Little Prince. Well, he was in on his little bike on a big, big mountain. The wolf was chasing the little prince. “Go away wolf, get away from my $5000 bike.” The winner of stage eight bolted up the mountain from his breakaway group. Nobody even bothered to try catching him. Cunego showed a high end acceleration that reminded Twisted Spoke of Ricarrdo Ricco. Not that we’re making any assumptions but nobody else has that burst in the Vuelta. (Certainly not the post-Operacion Puerto Ivan Basso.)
Sadly, it was another rough day for Tom Danielson who lost six minutes yesterday due to illness. The Garmin-Slipstream rider fought hard on the Pandera and managed to keep his 9th place in the overall competition. Danielson has shown a tenacity that will serve him well as the Vuelta continues.
Alejandro Valverde said whoever wore the Golden Jersey at the summit of La Pandera would win the Vuelta. He must feel pretty confident but we offer a cautionary tale. Fellow Spaniard Roberto Heras won the Pandera stage and the Vuelta in 2005 only be be stripped of the title for doping. With Valverde’s own case awaiting the Court of Arbitration decision, history may well repeat itself.