CORDOBA, Spain (VN) – Óscar Freire (Rabobank) stayed clear of a finish-line crash at the end of stage 4 to charge to his first win on the 2011 season and claim his seventh career stage victory at the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol. Freire was at the nose of the peloton when riders hit the deck in his wake with about 150 meters to go and the three-time world champion won easily ahead of Jimmy Engoulvent (Saur-Sojasun). Aitor Galdos (Caja Rural) was among the riders who avoided the pileup and crossed the line third.
Riders roaring down the right side of the finishing straight in the rolling, 174km stage from La Guardia Jaén to Córdoba got tangled up in a loose race banner and crashed in Freire’s wake. Juan José Lobato (Andalucía-Caja Granada) was the first to hit the deck, followed in quick succession by Tuesday’s winner Fran Ventoso (Movistar) and Koldo Fernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who earned a trip to a local hospital.
Christian Knees (Sky) bunny-hopped over Ventoso to avoid crashing and crossed the line ninth after helping to set up teammate Davide Appollonio, who was sixth.
Ventoso said he was thankful he wasn’t seriously injured in the full-speed crash and openly questioned the work of race officials in preparing the finish-line zone.
“I was going well behind Freire and Lobato right up next to the barriers, when a publicity banner that wasn’t attached at the bottom flew up and provoked the crash,” Ventoso said, who was banged up and suffered a hard blow to his ankle. “The same thing happened last year and it’s something that’s difficult to explain. It doesn’t take anything to correctly attach a banner. I don’t know who is responsible, and we’re always fighting about other things and sometimes we forget the most important, which is the security of the riders.”
Irizar one day closer to victory
Markel Irizar (RadioShack) finished safely in the pack to retain the race leader’s jersey on a day that saw Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) ride into the day’s main breakaway.
Scheck had tried the previous day to get away and this time the two-time Tour de France runner-up attacked early and stayed away. Grabbing his wheel was Javi Moreno (Caja Rural) and the pair opened up a 55-second lead at 20km. Two more riders trailed out – Adrian Palomares (Andalucía-Caja Granada) and Héctor González (KTM-Murcia) — and the four joined up to open a six-minute gap over the day’s main obstacle at the third-category Puerto de Arjona in the first hour of racing.
Schleck’s “training day” ended with 15km to go thanks to the work from RadioShack, Vacansoleil and Saur Sojasun.
The bunch split in the wake of the finish line crash, but the time differences didn’t count. Irizar retained his one-second lead to Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) with Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) holding onto a podium spot with third at two seconds back.
“Today was another complicated stage. There was some wind and the team really supported me again. We’re one day closer, we’ll see if I can hang on to win,” Irizar said at the line in Córdoba. “Tomorrow won’t be easy. The finish is complicated, with a sharp rise and some corners. It’s going to come down to the wire.”
The 57th Ruta concludes Thursday with the 162.7km fifth stage from Córdoba to Antequera. As Irizar mentioned, the final two kilometers is an uphill grind that could split the pack. With seven riders still within 10 seconds of the lead, the pressure will be on Irizar to finish off the stage to secure overall victory.