Reigning U-23 world champion Michael Matthews (Rabobank) looks destined for a big season and kicked to his first European pro victory in Friday’s 178.7km opening stage at the three-day Vuelta a Murcia.
Matthews, who already won a stage at the Tour Down Under in January, took over when Rabobank’s top sprinter Theo Bos crashed with about 12km to go in the rainy and cold stage, opening the door for Matthews to show off his stuff. Matthews kicked to the win ahead of a pair of Sky riders, Russell Downing and Davide Appollonio. Robert Forster led UnitedHealthcare with seventh.
“I was on the fourth wheel, but things went well, and I could finish it off,” said Matthews after the race. “It’s great to get the first win in Europe. I’ve raced over here in Europe before, but it’s a whole different level compared to what I’ve done so far. The speed is different at this level, but I am adjusting well.”
Matthews also claimed the leader’s jersey, but he doesn’t expect to be wearing it all the way to Sunday when the race ends with an individual time trial. Though Matthews is also strong against the clock, the Spanish mountain goats are expected to put the hammer down in Saturday’s climbing stage.
Cool temperatures and heavy rains pelted the pack in what was the season debut for 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC), who lined up with new teammate Denis Menchov for the first time since the pair joined the squad.
A six-man break peeled away early, building up a six-minute gap when Rabobank, Sky and Saxo Bank collaborated to keep it on a short leash. The break was finished coming off the day’s final climb at the Cat. 3 Cola del Caballo with 25km to go.
Three riders tried in vain to surprise the sprinters with a surge with 3km to go, with UnitedHealthcare’s Christopher Jones leading two others, but the fast pack was breathing down their collective necks.
All eyes were Contador, whose presence at the start drew big crowds of fans and media. Starting his second race since he was cleared by the Spanish cycling federation on doping allegations, Contador managed to finish with the leaders in 15th at two seconds back and retain his GC options.
“It was really hard and dangerous today. It looked easier, but it was complicated by the rain. The last part of the stage was very dangerous, but we got through it without falling,” Contador said after the race. “Tomorrow will be different but also complicated because it ends with an 8km downhill. If the weather is bad like today, the differences will be bigger on the descent than on the climb.”
Forecasters are calling for unsettled weather Saturday before a storm system clears out in time for Sunday’s final TT in Murcia.
Perhaps Saturday could see another young buck looking to make his mark in his first European pro season, Fabio Duarte. The former U-23 champion lost 31 seconds, but Duarte has already been aggressive in his first races with Geox and could well go on the move tomorrow.
The 31st Vuelta a Murcia continues Saturday with the decisive 183.2km second stage from Murcia to Siera Espuña. The route features three rated climbs, including Cat. 1 Alto del Collado Bermejo. From the summit, it’s a treacherous eight-kilometer descent to the finish line. Only the brave, or foolish, will risk a lot if the roads are wet.
Vuelta a Murcia, Stage 1
- 1. Michael Matthews (Aus), Rabobank in 4:26:09
- 2. Russell Downing (GB), Sky, same time
- 3. Davide Appollonio (I), Sky, s.t.
- 4. Aitor Galdos (Sp), Caja Rural, s.t.
- 5. Martin Reimer (G), Skil-Shimano, s.t.
- 6. Jonas Jorgensen (Dk), Saxo Bank-SunGard, s.t.
- 7. Robert Forster (G), UnitedHealthcare, s.t.
- 8. Roy Curvers (Nl), Skil-Shimano, s.t.
- 9. Egoitz García (Sp), Caja Rural, s.t.
- 10. Juan José Cobo (Sp), Geox-TMC, s.t.