April 5, 2011 6 Comments
Joaquim Rodríguez produced a welcome return to form as he showed his rivals a clean pair of heels on the steep slopes of La Antigua. The Katusha rider surged into the lead on the final climb and then winning the sprint from a decisive four-man breakaway to claim the early lead at the six-day Tour of the Basque Contry (Vuelta al País Vasco).
The race is run primarily on mountainous terrain which makes it an excellent tune-up event for next month’s Giro d’Italia. It therefore attracts a large number of cycling’s big names who can expect to feature in the upper reaches of the general classification at either or both of the Giro and the Tour de France, including Andy and Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek), Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner (RadioShack), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Richie Porte (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and a strong contingent from the region’s Eustaktel-Euskadi squad led by Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez.
País Vasco has been won by Spanish riders in six of the last nine years, including Alberto Contador in 2008 and 2009. Last year Chris Horner beat Alejandro Valverde by seven seconds, although the Spaniard’s result was subsequently voided after he was handed a back-dated doping suspension.
An explosive final climb
The opening stage, covering 151km in a loop starting and finishing in Zumarraga, featured six categorised climbs, with four coming in the final 50km. The day’s breakaway saw Ivan Rovny (RadioShack), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Mathieu Perget (AG2R-La Mondiale) build an early six-minute lead.
However the peloton, led by Leopard-Trek, always had the chase in hand, gently pulling the escape back over the penultimate climb, the third-category Gabiria. On the approach to the category two La Antigua, a 2.5km climb which averages out at 9.6% but touches 20% at the top, Maxime Monfort surged to the front and lined out the peloton.
But it soon became apparent both that Leopard-Trek would not be able to dictate the tempo and that neither Schleck has yet found their best climbing legs. With Rodríguez hovering ominously in fourth or fifth wheel, it was 2010 winner Horner who launched the first meaningful attack, establishing a small but significant gap as the riders all dropped down the gears and stamped down hard on the pedals just to maintain forward momentum as they wobbled up the hill.
Rodríguez bided his time, putting in his acceleration in the final few hundred metres of the climb where the gradient is steepest. With Sánchez the only rider able to respond, he swept past Horner – who was clearly in the red zone and could not catch his wheel – crested the summit and accelerated away. His timing was perfect, and behind him the peloton shattered as several riders behind ground to a standstill and were forced to push their bikes over the summit, stringing the field right out. Other than Sánchez and the recovering Horner, only a fast-descending Klöden was able to latch on, creating a four-way battle for victory.
First Horner and then Sánchez led out the quartet in the final kilometre in Zumarraga, but it was Rodríguez who went over the top with 200 metres to go. Although Sánchez responded quickly he was just unable to recover the deficit as his compatriot held on to win by a tyre’s breadth.
Hesjedal won the sprint for fifth place, six seconds behind. The Schlecks finished in a group 18 seconds down which included several of the other favourites such as Basso, Vinokourov and van den Broeck.
Delight for Rodríguez
Rodríguez was delighted to win after a difficult start to 2011 in which he had been struggling with a nagging leg injury:
I was so happy with this victory, so much that, when I reached the finishing line, I almost cried for joy. In the first part of my season I had some health troubles but now I hope I left behind all these troubles.
I have to thank all the team for always having told me to stay calm because our principal goal this year will be the Giro d’Italia. However, I needed an indication for myself and that’s the reason why I told my teammates that, if we all were inside the group on the Alto de la Antigua, I would try to attack. I have to say that everything was perfect and now I feel calmer and more confident for the rest of the season.
Rodríguez should be pleased with his day’s work. Compared to his rivals, his rhythm on the steepest section of La Antigua looked smooth and more effortless than anyone climbing a 20% ramp has any right to be. With some devilish summit finishes to be tackled at the Giro, based on this final climb his form looks close to the level which twice propelled him into the lead of last year’s Vuelta a España. If he can maintain this level throughout this week, he will be a genuine contender for the maglia rosa next month, even though he has never placed higher than 17th (in 2008) at the Giro.
Today’s (Tuesday) stage is similarly hilly, covering 163km from Zumarraga to Lekunberri and taking in seven categorised climbs, including the first-category Azpiroza (3.2km, 8.5% average gradient) three kilometres from the finish.
Stage 1 result:
1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 4:02:42
2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) same time
3. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) s/t
4. Chris Horner (RadioShack) + 0:01
5. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) + 0:06