Blazin' Saddles

Red hot PhilGil

Blazin' Saddles

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Three days into the Vuelta and Philippe Gilbert is the first
convincing tenant of the new red leader's jersey after his swashbuckling ride in
Malaga.

The Belgian bust a ball-breaking move which culminated in a
worthy win on the Costa del Sol and thrust the 28-year-old onto the top of the
GC at the expense of heat-pummelled Brit Mark Cavendish.

Cav was in red from the first evening of the race after
leading his team-mates over the line as Columbia-HTC won the opening team time
trial in Seville
on Saturday.

With the last three grand tours - starting with last year's
Vuelta - kicking off in Holland,
race organisers, in a continuous bid to be hip, decided to do something totally
different this time round.

Perhaps not as ground-breaking as the 2012 Giro - which is
pencilled in, quite preposterously, for a trans-Atlantic start in Washington DC
- Vuelta officials decided to open the 2010 race with a night-time TTT at 10pm,
whereby giving local Spanish supporters something to do before dinner.

It was a great idea in theory but in practice just meant a
lot of squinting because of the glaring headlights of each team's support car.
Plus, if you're going to hold an evening stage, you might as well do it through
the centre of a town illuminated in light rather than around the dank
outskirts.

As it was, we didn't see much of the delightful part of the
city that is old Seville; it might as well have been some eyesore like Zamora -
that's to say, a place which looks better with the lights out.

Watching the TTT, Saddles was also struck at what a
shockingly bad team Astana have turned out. Treating one of the biggest races
in the cycling calendar with such disdain is a borderline disgrace - especially
in light of the absence of strong teams such as Vacansoleil or RadioShack.

It could be said that Astana are treating the Vuelta like
Arsenal treat the Carling Cup - but at least the Gunners actually field some
exciting talent from their reserves, which is more to be said than the Kazakh
outfit.

(That said, the same beef could be levelled at Saddles'
output for this Vuelta: a twice-weekly blog delivered before and after the
weekends, subject to an increased showing should the occasion allow - but
steady on, this is only the Vuelta after all.)

So, continuing the race recap... Stage two took the riders
from Seville to Marbella, a trip Saddles has done before but
in reverse. Oh, and in a coach. While sleeping.

Talking of which, Cav was caught napping by some curly
haired chap called Yauheni Hutarovich who, despite a recent win in Poland,
prompted quips such as "Who-tarovitch?" or "Hutaro-who?"
from crass cycling bloggers and reporters alike.

Anyway, hats off to Francaise des Jeux's Belorussian after
what was a pretty convincing win over the sprinting big guns.

Monday saw the race's first big break-away as well as the
first first-category climb as Spain's
Serafin Martinez looked odds on favourite to win in Malaga. In fact, Eurosport commentator David
Harmon was so convinced of a Martinez victory that he announced, with just
under two kilometres to go, that "all his Christmases are coming at once,
Sean - he's going to take the stage, the mountains jersey and the leader's
jersey all at the same time".

Christmas in the Martinez household must have been a series
of heart-breaking disappointments one after the other: poor old Serafin was
caught with one click left to go - on Christmas Eve, if you will - and ended up
rolling over the line singing carols in 67th place.

But oh come, all ye faithful - Martinez was one of the most combative riders
in last year's Vuelta, so he'll be back. Saddles for one would like to see him
nail the first professional win of his career.

Back to Malaga
- a place usually associated with drunken Brits abroad and minor gangsters
portrayed in films by actors such as Ray Winstone. To BS's surprise, the
helicopter images showed Malaga to be quite a stunning city, with an impressive
cathedral, castle, promenade, port and bull ring, all surrounded by picturesque
hills.

The punchy uphill finish was ideal for a classics specialist
like Philippe Gilbert. In fact, even if the stage were to finish on Savile Row,
it wouldn't have been as perfectly suited to Gilbert.

Talking of which, the Belgian got married earlier this
summer wearing a rather fetching gold suit (definitely not from Savile Row).
Lucky for Gilbert then that this year, race organisers have done away with
awarding golden jerseys for the leaders, introducing instead a blood-red shirt
for the man at the top of the GC.

PhilGil timed his attack to perfection and moved into the
red with a combination of bonus seconds and red-in-the-face Cavendish losing
time over the Puerto del Leon climb.

Cav was not the only British rider to feel a bit off colour
after it emerged that a mystery illness had spread through Team Sky leading to
the withdrawals of compatriot Ben Swift and South African John-Lee Augustyn.

Augustyn is having a year to forget. In fact, Saddles can't
remember seeing him in anything this season.

And there we have it: the story of the Vuelta so far. But
what of Saddles' predictions for the rest of the race?

Well, despite all the noise surrounding Denis Menchov,
Carlos Sastre and the Schleck brothers, Saddles can see Vincenzo Nibali coming
away victorious - but only after a ding-dong internal battle with Liquigas
team-mate Roman Kreuziger, whose future Astana team-mates may find that their
purpose in this year's race is in fact to ride in support of their future
colleague.

There will certainly be some extra spice between Thor
Hushovd and Tyler Farrar ahead of Cervelo's merger with Garmin.

A Spaniard will win the mountains classification.

And after disappointing in the Pyrenees,
Lampre's Andrey Kashechkin will be de-masked not as Alexandre Vinokourov's
former partner in blood crime but as Bruno's brother, the latest character in a
Sasha Baron Cohen documentary.

Follow Blazin' Saddles throughout the Vuelta on
www.twitter.com/saddleblaze.

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