There’s no better way to make up for the disappointment of a close call than to win another big race.
Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) knocked on the door of a stage victory at the Tour de France only to have Sandy Casar (FDJeux) slam it shut on him after fighting over the Col de la Madeleine in stage 9. Casar walked away with one of France’s six stage victories and Sánchez was left with second-place crumbs.
Sánchez got redemption with his first major classic victory Saturday after out-kicking some elite company in a three-man group to win the 234km Clásica San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque Country. Sánchez fended off Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), who took second, while 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) crossed the line third.
“It was a sweet and sour Tour for us, not only for me, but the entire team. We came close to stage victories, but we just didn’t have that little bit of luck,” Sánchez said after winning in 5:47:13 (40.436kph). “I came out of the Tour feeling strong. I went home with the Clásica in mind and came here very motivated. It couldn’t have worked out better.”
Attacks on the Jaizkibel
Changes in the Clásica route made for a much tougher edition this year. Organizers added a second passage of the emblematic Cat. 1 Jaizkibel climb and the short, but steep Cat. 2 Alto de Arkale in the closing 40km. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) wasn’t in the race long. He abandoned after 40km and only 94 riders of the 164 starters made it through the hot, windy conditions.
An early breakaway was reeled in on the final climb up Jaizkibel, where fans lined the road on the spectacular escarpment towering above the Bay of Biscayne. Vinokourov started the aggression and Sastre was quick to respond.
“We knew we had an important opportunity to win and we worked together to make sure we stayed away. In the end, Sánchez was the strongest,” Sastre told VeloNews. “I am pretty happy with this podium after some of the crashes and illnesses I’ve had this year. I came out of the Tour feeling pretty strong and wanted to use the form here at the Clásica, where the harder course made it even better for me.”
Sánchez, 26, uncorked a tremendous solo attack near the top of the second of two passages over the Cat. 1 Alto do Jaizkibel with about 35km to go to gap an elite group of attacking riders.
Vinokourov and Sastre, who were already leading up the Jaizkibel when Sánchez bolted out of a chase group trailing at about 15 seconds back, were able to latch on to make it a horse race all the way to San Sebastián’s tony Boulevard finishing straight.
“I knew that was a good moment. I could see that no one had teammates to try to control the finale,” Sánchez said. “It was far to try to attack, then I heard that Vinokourov and Sastre were coming after me, so I waited for them. We were all motivated to make it to the finish line together.”
Discord in the chase
A seven-man chase group formed in their wake, including Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) and some other impressive firepower with Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Nicholas Roche (Ag2r), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Richie Porte (Saxo Bank), Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) and pre-race favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha).
As one of the season’s big surprises with a strong Giro d’Italia ride, Porte was active on the Jaizkibel and chased hard to try to catch early sorties by Vinokourov. When Sánchez pulled clear, Porte stayed with a chase group and crossed the line 10th.
“I didn’t have the legs to follow the final attacks at the top of the climb. The legs felt pretty good, but I haven’t raced much. The Tour riders here are a little stronger than me right now,” Porte told VeloNews. “I feel like I am a different rider after the Giro. I am stronger and it was fun today to race against these guys.”
With strong crosswinds blowing off the northern Atlantic, the odds – at least on paper – favored the chasing seven to reel in the leading three. After coming over the day’s final climb with the Cat. 2 Alto de Alkale with 12.5km to go, the gap was holding steady at 38 seconds.
There was a lack of cooperation among the chasers, however, allowing the Sánchez trio hang on to their hopes of victory. Vinokourov was taking big pulls on the flats to maintain the gap, but when the course dipped onto a wide-open stretch of highway with about 6km to go, the chasers had their prey in sight. Or so they thought.
“You think seven guys could have caught three. We could see them on the highway and it seemed like everyone thought, ‘OK, we’re going to get them,’ and let up a little bit to save their legs for the final,” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “(You should) always go with Vinokourov when he attacks. I just believed in the majority. I did all I could. I didn’t feel great at the end. I was cramping a little, but I wasn’t soft-pedaling.”
Hesjedal, hot off completing a career-best seventh overall at the Tour de France, later voiced frustration that some riders weren’t taking pulls. He was especially annoyed that Zubeldia, back to racing for the first time since breaking his wrist at the Criterium du Dauphiné in June and missing the Tour, didn’t pull, only to later attack the group with 500 meters to go to take fourth at 34 seconds.
“He said he didn’t have the legs to pull and then he attacked in the end. If he had used some of that with us, we might have caught them. I guess fourth for him was better than going for the win. Sprinting for fourth is not that exciting, but that’s bike racing,” Hesjedal said. “Gesink was doing most of the work. He’s a big rider who wants to go for the win. Guys are at their limit right now, especially for riders coming out of the Tour. Everyone has got their situation.”
Sánchez takes the flowers
With the Hesjedal group not quite having the cooperation and/or the legs to close the gap, the leading three could play their cards for the victory.
Vinokourov surged with just over 3km to go to gap Sastre, who was cramping. Sánchez really had to dig deep to chase him down, an effort that he was worried about when Sastre latched back on with 1km to go and they came in for the three-up sprint.
“When Vinokourov attacked, I really had to use a lot to chase him. Everyone is really tired after a very had Tour,” Sánchez said. “I knew I only had to worry about Vinokourov in the final sprint. I was on his wheel with 150 meters to go and was able to come around him to win. There was a lot of wind and I wanted to wait for the sprint as long as possible.”
Sánchez is one of Spain’s hot properties, but denied rumors that he’s signed a deal with Rabobank. He said Caisse d’Epargne boss Eusebio Unzue asked the riders to give him more time to try to find a new sponsor to keep the team alive for next year.
“Eusebio asked us to wait and I am riding still with this team until December 31, so I hope it works out for the team, not just for me, but for all the support people. This team has a rich history and it would be a shame they cannot find a sponsor to continue,” he said. “This victory is important not only for me, but also for the team.”