EIBAR, Spain (VN) – It looks like it will all come down to Saturday’s time trial at this year’s Vuelta al País Vasco.
Despite an exciting battle up the first-category Arrate summit high above Eibar, there were no major shakeups in the overall standings in the Tour of the Basque Country after Thursday’s seven-climb, 179km stage from Amurrio to Eibar.
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) repeated his victory from a year ago, pumping his fist in victory ahead of Andreas Klöden (RadioShack). Defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack) crossed the line seventh to retain his fourth place overall at just one second back with just two stages left to go in the tightly-wound Basque tour.
“It’s always important for us to win here. The temperatures are like summer here, that’s costing everyone. Today on the final climb, everyone was on the same level, so I had to race with a little bit of cold blood and wait for the final moment to attack,” Sánchez said. “Everyone in the top-10 now on GC is very close. Anyone can win because the differences are very small. Without a doubt, the time trial (Saturday) is going to be spectacular.”
Basque fans took advantage of summer-like temperatures and lined the final climb four-deep to cap another attack-riddled stage in Spain’s Basque Country.
Sánchez waited until the final kilometer to uncork a stage-winning attack, crossing the line just ahead of a chasing Klöden. Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), the winner of Wednesday’s stage, came across third.
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) crossed the line fourth to retain the race leader’s jersey. Rodríguez, Klöden and Sánchez are all tied with the same time, with Horner at one second back. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) kept alive his podium hopes with fifth on the stage to slot into fifth overall at six seconds back.
“I’m glad to keep the jersey. The pace was high on the climb and I lack a bit of explosivity to try to win the stage and couldn’t follow the accelerations from Sánchez,” Rodríguez said. “Tomorrow I hope to keep the jersey and that will allow me to start the final time trial last. That will give me an extra motivation to give everything in the time trial.”
Early break falls short
It didn’t take long for a break to form and at just 36km into the stage, three leaders had opened a seven-minute lead. Getting away were Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad), Maxim Belkov (Vacansoleil) and Julian Sanchez Pimienta (Caja Rural). The gap continued to grow to 12 minutes at 55km even before hitting the first of seven rated climbs.
Katusha put some men on point to ride tempo and the gap slowly dwindled over the opening four climbs, two second-category and two third-category humps that served as tapas for the coming steeps. Unseasonably warm temperatures, pushing into the 80s, made for an even more demanding challenge.
Euskaltel-Euskadi and RadioShack put fresh legs on the front of the pack to reduce the gap in the final 20km. The difference was under a minute coming to the base of the final climb up Arrete, when the big guns took over the for the decisive mountaintop battle.
“I don’t know if it’s because this is a ProTour event, but all the teams are really working hard together to control the breakaways,” said Sanchez Pimienta. “I’ve been trying the past three days to get into a break, but it didn’t work out until today. Once we were in the break, we all understood what we had to do and we collaborated. I knew it would be complicated today, but it was good for our team to be in the break. This is the first time we’ve raced here at País Vasco.”
Leopard-Trek raised the pace on the approach through the winding streets of Eibar to the base of the Arrate climb. From there it was straight up to the line.
Fabio Duarte (Geox-TMC) took a stab at just under 7km to go to make a long-shot attack for a win against the pre-race favorites.
RadioShack’s Horner and Klöden paired off at the front with the Schleck brothers on the opening wall of the climb, with ramps as steep as 8.5 percent. The pace and the steeps caused the lead bunch to quickly fracture, with riders like Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervélo) dangling at the tail of the pack.
Tondo made a run at 5.5km to go, drawing out Frank Schleck and reeling in Duarte. The acceleration spit more riders out the back, with Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Jurgen Van den Broucke (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) losing contact.
“I tried to go from the base to open up a little bit of a gap, but the others were too strong today,” Duarte said. “I had a crash on the first day, so that ended my GC chances. I’ve been attacking every day since to try to win a stage, but so far it hasn’t worked out.”
Gesink surged away with 5km to go, a move quickly marked by Hesjedal and the rest of the favorites. There were still more than a dozen riders with the favorites as Tondo opened up a 14-second lead with 4.5km to go. Tondo dropped Schleck and surged alone with 4km to go as his lead grew to 20 seconds with 4km to go.
Back in the GC group, Vinokourov accelerated, quickly shadowed by Klöden. Horner eventually led the chase for the GC favorites as Tondo clung to a 15-second lead with 3km to go.
The false flats in the closing kilometers worked against Tondo, who ran out of road. Andy Schleck and Vinokourov gave chase with 2.5km to go. Tondo caved and the pack chased down the attackers. Sánchez attacked in the final kilometer, fending off Klöden and Vinokourov to take the win.
The 51st Basque tour continues Friday with the seven-climb march from Eibar to Zalla. The hardest climbs come in the opening 60km, so the GC favorites will have to do their work to keep a breakaway on a short leash. This will be the sprinters’ last chance, so watch for the likes of Oscar Freire (Rabobank) to be on the hunt for the win. The GC teams have done a lot of work the past few days, so a break could stay clear.