Vuelta a Espaņa - Cobo on brink as Bennati wins

Sat, 10 Sep 16:45:00 2011

Spain's Juan Jose Cobo is all but assured the overall victory in the Vuelta after safely finishing stage 20, won by the Italian Daniele Bennati.

Bennati - 0

Leopard Trek's Bennati took the bunch sprint in the Basque capital of Vitoria at a canter ahead of fellow Italians Enrico Gasparotto (Astana) and Damiano Caruso (Liquigas).

But all eyes were on Cobo after the Geox all-rounder successfully managed to shadow his rival Chris Froome (Sky) to maintain his narrow 13-second lead at the top of the overall standings.

The 30-year-old Spaniard will now ride into Madrid for Sunday's final 96km stage to the Spanish capital where - accidents aside - he should secure the first Grand Tour victory of his career.

Featuring four categorised climbs - including the tough Cat.1 Puerto de Urkiola 50km from the finish - Saturday's 185km stage 20 offered the Kenyan-born Froome his last realistic chance of dethroning Cobo at the top of the general classification.

But an early break of 27 riders meant all bonus seconds at the first intermediate sprint after 41km were effectively neutralised, making the job of Team Sky even harder.

The break built up a maximum lead of just over four minutes as temperatures hit the mid-30s on the race's second day in the cycling-mad Basque Country in northern Spain.

On the final climb of the Urkiola, Spain's Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) dropped his fellow escapees and crossed the summit with 1:40 over the peloton, while seven riders - including Nicolas Roche (Ag2R) and Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel) - rode at 45 seconds.

Vuelta a Espaņa : Stage 20

With Geox stalwarts Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre - both previous Grand Tour winners - policing the front of the pack throughout the climb, Team Sky had no chance to put Cobo under pressure.

The seven chasing riders were soon caught by the bunch as Barredo continued his seemingly futile solo ride along the flat plateau towards the finish.

Then came an unexpected moment of excitement when Froome, wearing the white combined jersey, jumped clear of the peloton with 20km left to ride. Red jersey Cobo latched onto his wheel straight away, while, sensing trouble, Sastre then countered in order to create a small Geox buffer and deter further attacks.

The reasoning behind Froome's attack on the flat became apparent a few kilometres later when Barredo crossed the revised second intermediate sprint, which had been hastily rearranged during the course of the stage.

Froome, who clearly timed his break too early, no longer had anything left in the tank - but British team-mate Bradley Wiggins picked up third at the sprint behind Sastre, to take two bonus seconds and consolidate his third place in the GC, 1:39 down on Cobo.

Sastre soon caught Barredo and the two combined well before being reeled in one after the other on the outskirts of Vitoria, Barredo first and then his compatriot, just inside the 3km banner.

By now, the Leopard Trek team of Bennati had come to the front of the pack in a bid to lead out their man to glory. And it all went to plan when Bennati profited from a perfect train before easily out-sprinting his fellow Italians Gasparotto and Caruso in a rather anticlimactic finale.

It was Bennati's fifth career stage win in the Vuelta and his first since 2008. It also adds to the 30-year-old's red jersey that he wore for one day this year in the opening week of the race.

While Cobo is not yet 100 percent certain of taking the red jersey in Madrid, France's David Moncoutie (Cofidis) is guaranteed a fourth successive King of the Mountains title on Sunday after the veteran climber saw no change in the race for the polka dot jersey.

The battle for the green jersey, however, will go right down to the wire after young Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) finished two places higher than current green jersey Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) to move level on points with the Spaniard.

Felix Lowe / Eurosport

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