Every year since 2005, World Champion Paolo Bettini has won a stage of the Tour of Spain - and in 2008, the Italian has done it again, outsprinting Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde in a tough finish in Toledo.
Bettini had tested the water on the hilly run-in to Cordoba on stage three, but was reeled in with 10 kilometres to go.
Three days later, the Italian played much more of a waiting game on the interminable series of short climbs and fearsome descents in the closing kilometres of stage six.
Thanks to the ultra-complicated finale, the main bunch was whittled down to less than 50 riders - most of them either the favourites or riders like Bettini who are specialists in this sort of Ardennes Classics-like finish.
As the bunch came over a last short climb in the final kilomere, a desperate last acceleration by Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) with 200 metres to go was all the World Champion needed as a springboard to move ahead.
Bettini squeezed past the Belgian to finish less than half a bikelength ahead. It was close - but Bettini had calculated the distance he needed to win down to the last millimetre.
This win indicates that Bettini is well on track for the World Championships in Italy this September - the race which may be the last of his career.
Valverde?s third place enabled him to gain time on the other favourites, but Chavanel was the rider who played the time bonuses game the most skilfully on stage six.
By nabbing first place in two intermediate sprints, the Frenchman leapfrogged ahead of Astana?s Levi Leipheimer to take his first ever lead in a major Tour.
?The last Frenchman who took the Vuelta lead was Laurent Jalabert.? Chavanel pointed out. ?It?s an honour to succeed him in the palmares of the Vuelta, even though I did come here looking for stage wins.?
?I will try to defend this lead, too, on the mountain stage to Andorra on Saturday. This is a major Tour and the leader?s jersey is not something to throw away lightly.?
Friday is a rest day on the Vuelta - although ?rest? is a relative term. Race followers will be driving over 700 kilometres from Toledo to Saturday?s stage start in Barbastro. The riders are luckier - they?re going by train.
TOUR OF SPAIN 2008: STAGE SIX RESULTS
1. Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step 150.1km in 3h 19min 28secs
2. Philippe Gilbert (Fra) FDJeux
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
4. Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
5. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas
6. Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
7. Sebastien Hinault (Fra) Credit Agricole
8. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) Silence-Lotto
9. Karsten Kroon (Ned) CSC-Saxo Bank
10. Matti Breschel (Den) CSC-Saxo Bank all at same time.
43. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 6secs
OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE SIX
1. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis in 17h 35min 35secs
2. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana at 10secs
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 26secs
4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 57secs
5. Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC-Saxo Bank at 1min 37secs
6. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas at 1min 42secs
7. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank at 2min 1sec
8. Dominique Cornu (Bel) Silence-Lotto at 2min 6secs
9. Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 2min 20secs
10. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 2min 27secs
130. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 20min 24secs
Stage six stack
Alejandro Valverde was one of those riders caught in the crash
Paolo Bettini wins stage six
Sylvain Chavanel takes the race lead
Photos by Graham Watson
|TOUR OF SPAIN 2008|
Stage five: time trial win for Leipheimer
Stage four: Bennati takes crash-strewn stage
Stage three: Boonen bounces back
Stage two: Valverde powers into lead
Stage one: Liquigas are surprise winners
Tour of Spain on Eurosport (schedule)
Behind the scenes at the Tour of Spain
Tour of Spain - still a week too long?
Tour of Spain kicks off this weekend
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