Igor Anton timed it perfectly to win the fourth stage of the Vuelta a Espana on the steep uphill finish at Valdepenas de Jaen.
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The final climb, with a gradient of 25 per cent on the steepest sections, was rather like the Mur de Huy in Belgium.
So it was no surprise that the riders who came to the fore are likely to be those who fight for the red leader’s jersey when the race reaches the mountains a bit later on.
Anton jumped clear inside the final 500 metres and managed to hold on to the line. However, Philippe Gilbert, who was in difficulty earlier in the race dug deep to preserve his overall lead.
Anton, who finished eighth in the Vuelta three years ago, can add his name to the long list of favourites after his stage win. It was his second victory at the Vuelta, the other came at Calar in 2006.
With temperatures again very high, the bunch was content to let a break go clear because they knew they would be able to drag them back on the climbs at the end.
Guillaume Bonnafond of AG2R, Sergio Carruso of Andalucia-Cajasur, Dario Cataldo of Quick Step and Dominik Roels of Milram escaped from the peloton and built a lead that nudged up to five minutes at one point.
Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto team kept a lid on things for most of the stage before Katusha began to apply the pressure on the penultimate climb. That put Carlos Sastre of Cervélo in trouble and he was dropped.
Katusha were trying to set up a stage win for Joaquin Rodriguez but it was Luis Leon Sanchez of Caisse d’Epargne who attacked with around two kilometres to go, before the steep final climb.
Sanchez was looking good until the gradient began to bite. Huge crowds turned out to watch and they were treated to some great racing at the finish.
As Sanchez faded, Rodriguez tried to go for it but he lacked the acceleration to get clear and it was Anton who fired out of the small lead group to win the stage.
Vincenzo Nibali, so strong at the Giro d’Italia in May, underlined his status as one of the favourites to win the Vuelta by finishing second, just ahead of Peter Velits and Rodriguez.
Velits, the Slovakian, was one of two HTC-Columbia riders who are doing extremely well so far. The other, America’s Tejay Van Garderen was sixth on the stage.
Ireland’s Nicolas Roche was also strong, finishing eighth. Frank Schleck of Saxo Bank and Denis Menchov of Rabobank lost 19 seconds on the stage but Sastre conceded 1-34.
The day’s racing was overshadowed by news of Laurent Fignon’s death. The Frenchman, who was 50, lost his battle with cancer. Christian Prudhomme of ASO, the Vuelta a Espana’s parent company, paid tribute to Fignon, who won a stage of the 1983 Vuelta and was third overall in 1987.
Tomorrow’s fifth stage from Guadix to Lorca is a lumpy 194 kilometres but it should end in a sprint. Mark Cavendish will hope to get his first Vuelta stage – becoming the first British rider since Robert Millar to win stages of all three grand tours – but he will have to do it without his HTC-Columbia lead-out man Bernhard Eisel, who withdrew from the race.
Stage four: Malaga – Valdepenas de Jaen
1. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 183km in 5-00-29
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 1sec
3. Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Columbia
4. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha both same time
5. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 5sec
6. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) HTC-Columbia at 8sec
7. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 12sec
8. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R
9. Ruben Plaza (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne both same time
10. Rigoberto Uran (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 19sec
Overall classification after stage four
1. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto in 13-56-30
2. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 10sec
3. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 10sec
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas at 12sec
5. Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Columbia at 16sec
6. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) HTC-Columbia at 29sec
7. Xavier Tondo (Spa) Cervélo at 49sec
8. Frank Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 50sec
9. Ruben Plaza (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 54sec
10. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 55sec
Tom Danielson, Frank Schleck (r) and Philippe Gilbert (l)
Igor Anton wins the stage
Carlos Sastre at the finish
Philippe Gilbert kept the race lead
Vuelta a Espana 2010: Related links