Hands up who wants to lead the Tour of Spain? Stage nine saw the gold jersey change hands for the eighth time in the 2008, with Egoi Martinez moving into the number one spot.
Part of a 12-man break, Martinez ousted Astana?s Levi Leipheimer from the overall lead after the move gained nearly seven minutes on the main peloton.
At the end of a 200 kilometre trek through the foothills of the Pyrenees from Vielha to Sabiñánigo, Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) took a convincing stage win. Just 23, Van Avermaet has already taken a top ten finish in Flanders in 2008, and is definitely a name to watch for the future.
The other rider with a lot of reasons to celebrate on the Vuelta?s third day in the mountains was Euskaltel-Euskadi?s Egoi Martinez, the new race leader.
However, Martinez's lead did not come about because Astana?s Leipheimer and Alberto Contador have suddenly started to crack - although some of their team-mates, most notably the Kazakh riders, have had some pretty rough days in the first week of the Vuelta.
Rather, Martinez's success formed part of a long-term strategy masterminded by Astana manager Johan Bruyneel which can be summed up as: lose the lead today so your team does not have to work so hard before the key stages in northern Spain next weekend.
For Euskaltel-Euskadi, who have never led a major Tour in their fifteen years' history, when Martinez and the other 11 breakaways' lead rose to over seven minutes half way through the stage it was as if Christmas had arrived early.
Martinez's team-mate Alan Perez rode himself into the ground to keep the break clear, and then as Astana moved away from the front of the bunch in the last 20 kilometres, Martinez's lead looked like a foregone conclusion.
However, that was not the case. The last part of the stage saw Caisse d?Epargne and CSC-Saxo Bank move to the front in a vain and slightly surreal attempt to prevent Astana from losing the gold jersey.
Their all-out acceleration - with the almost unprecedented objective of helping a rival squad retain the overall lead, and therefore have to do more donkey work on some irrelevant transition stages - almost paid off.
But in the final kilometre, as Euskaltel-Euskadi riders attempted frantically to slow the bunch down by blocking, the time gap remained almost stable at just over six and a half minutes - and Martinez safely moved into gold.
Watching the race must have made confusing viewing for the general public - but they wouldn?t be the only ones scratching their heads and trying to work out why all the rivals were keener for Astana to stay in the lead than the Kazakhs were themselves.
Johan Bruyneel?s post-race comments that ?if I?d been in Caisse d?Epargne?s position, I?d have done the same.? hardly made things clearer, either.
?I didn?t have a clue what we were doing, they just told me to go to the front and work?, Caisse d?Epargne rider Dani Navarro admitted. ?So I just went and got on with it.?
?If CSC and Caisse had seen how I was suffering, I don?t think they?d have had the heart to chase down the break?, Martinez, best known (?) for his top ten place in last year?s Tour and a lone stage win in the Vuelta 2006, added.
?I was so nervous when Caisse d?Epargne got on the front I had to go and stand by myself.?
Finally Martinez needn?t have worried so much. But whether he?ll still be in the lead tomorrow, though, or yet another rider has a spell in gold remains to be seen.
TOUR OF SPAIN 2008: STAGE NINE RESULTS
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) Silence-Lotto 200.8km in 4h 57min 22secs
2. Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
3. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank
4. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r
5. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre
6. Xabier Zandio (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
7. Patrice Halgand (Fra) Credit Agricole
8. Andrea Tonti (Ita) Quick Step
9. Christophe Kern (Fra) Credit Agricole
10. Egoi Martinez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi all at same time.
151. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 12min 14secs
OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE NINE
1. Egoi Martinez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
2. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana at 11secs
3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 32secs
4. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 1min
5. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Astana at 1min 38secs
6. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 2min 10secs
7. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 2min 23secs
8. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 2min 34secs
9. Jurgen Van Goolen (Bel) CSC-Saxo Bank at 2min 54secs
10. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 3min 22secs
142. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 1h 15min 50secs
Damiano Cunego was one of the key riders in today's break
Egoi Martinez rides himself into the race lead
Shhh! Greg Van Avermaet silnces his critics with a stage win
Photos by Graham Watson
|TOUR OF SPAIN 2008|
Stage eight: Moncoutie triumphs in Vuelta's second Pyrenean stage
Stage seven: Ballan takes surprise win in mountains
Stage six: Bettini wins, Chavanel leads
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 rest day review 1
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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