Chris Horner (RadioShack) kept alive his GC hopes in a wild opener at the Vuelta a País Vasco (the Tour of the Basque Country), where the veteran American lined up Monday with the No. 1 start bib as defending champion.
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), sidelined during the Volta a Catalunya last month with a leg injury, kicked to victory in Monday’s hilly 151km run in a photo finish ahead of Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Andreas Kloeden, a former winner at the Basque tour, crossed the line third while Horner zipped across at fourth at one second back.
With an all-star cast taking the start, everyone was expecting fireworks from the start. Ivan Rovny represented RadioShack in the day’s three-man move that built up a nine-minute lead. That forced the others to chase, and the break was eventually reeled in coming to the extremely steep Cat. 1 Alto de La Antigua, with ramps as steep as 20 percent. Some riders were caught by surprise and even had to push their bikes up the steepest part of the climb.
Horner was the day’s main protagonist, jumping clear on the decisive part of the climb. From behind, Rodriguez jumped out to grab his wheel. Sánchez and Kloden rolled over the top in hot pursuit. From there, it was a very fast descent toward the line to fight for the spoils.
“I didn’t expect to win today because I’ve really had a bad year. I think I saw God at the finish line,” said Rodriguez, who also takes the leader’s jersey. “To win at the Basque tour is something big, but to take the leader’s jersey is reserved for the privileged.”
RadioShack sport director José Azevedo said the team’s “here to win” and said the opening stage played out perfectly for the squad.
“At the finish there were small roads and many corners. The guy who arrived at the corner first won. It was impossible to pass, but we are happy. Horner and Klöden are happy too. We are here to win the overall classification and today we made a good step in the right direction,” Azevedo said on the team’s site. “There is a time trial in the end and Klöden and Horner already have an 18-second advantage to guys like Tony Martin and Luis Leon Sanchez. That’s important.” (Azevedo was apparently confused as Martin actually finished more than 9 minutes back).
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) proved he’s on good form for the Ardennes and came across the line at six seconds adrift in a group with Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) and Xavier Tondo (Movistar).
Beñat Intxausti, last year’s third-place man, crossed the line at nine seconds back while Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) led a group through at 18 seconds back that included the Schleck brothers, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana).
“It was a tough day for both the rhythm and the harshness of the roads. It was dangerous and the tension was multiplied. The last 50km were very tense,” Intxausti said. “The team was good to the La Antigua, but there was little room to pass. I was blocked a little near the top but I hope that our strength in numbers will play in our favor in the coming days.”
Tejay Van Garderen did well in the extreme conditions at 33rd at 43 seconds adrift, but HTC-Highroad teammate Tony Martin lost more than nine minutes and any chance of overall victory.
Angel Madrazo (Movistar) crashed out and was transported to a local hospital.
The six-stage Basque tour continues Tuesday with more climbs on tap, with seven rated climbs, with the final hump just 3km from a downhill finish.