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Tour of the Basque Country stage 4: Sánchez doubles up, Rodríguez defends lead

Stage 4: Amurrio to Eibar (Arrate), 179 Km

Samuel Sánchez proved fastest on the closing downhill sprint to win the queen stage of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco) for the second year in succession. Joaquim Rodríguez maintained the race lead ahead of Andreas Klöden and Sánchez, with all three on the same aggregate time. Barring a major miscalculation, the race will now be decided in Saturday’s individual time trial.

On a hot, sunny day Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad), Maxim Belkov (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Julián Sánchez (Caja Rural) formed the day’s breakaway, pulling out a lead of 12 minutes before the first of the day’s seven climbs. This forced the Katusha team of yellow jersey Rodríguez to ride hard in leading the pursuit. Only in the closing stages of the chase, as Katusha tired, did Euskaltel-Euskadi and RadioShack add their fresh legs in support of Sánchez and Klöden.

The catch was completed with around 8km left, just before the peloton reached the Usartza, the final climb of the day. A 5.8km ascent with an average gradient of 8.4%, it was made doubly difficult by the combination of unseasonal heat (temperatures touched 30ºC) and the cumulative effect of the previous six climbs.

Leopard-Trek‘s Maxim Monfort and Andy Schleck attempted to set the tempo in the early part of the climb, but that did not dissuade Geox-TMC‘s Fabio Duarte from launching an early one-man attack for the third day in a row. As on stages two and three, however, he was only able to eke out a small gap, and with plenty of distance to go to the finish he was easily drawn back in.

Next to attack, with around 5.5km to go, was Fränk Schleck. This was an altogether more meaningful acceleration, and only Movistar‘s Xavier Tondó covered the move as the other leaders were either confident of recovery or simply unable to respond immediately at the end of a long, hot day. Certainly Rodríguez, Klöden and Sánchez appeared comfortable enough and seemed more intent on watching each other than pursuing. However, other big names such as Damiano Cunego, Jurgen van den Broeck and Paris-Nice champion Tony Martin could not sustain the pace and were shelled out of the back.

With Schleck and Tondó 14 seconds up the road, it was left to Rabobank‘s Robert Gesink to force the pace in the leaders’ group. Tondó then kicked again, leaving an exhausted Schleck for dead. However, as first Alexandre Vinkouorov and then Sánchez had a couple of little digs themselves as they approached the summit, Tondó’s chances evaporated and he was absorbed back into the group.

Sánchez won the sprint easily to claim stage four

The lead group, now numbering 11, crested the top of the climb and on the descent to the finish Andy Schleck put in a big effort of his own. Vinokourov immediately marked him, but the pair were unable to make the break stick and Sánchez timed his counter-attack perfectly, reeling the pair in and leading everyone across the line to win by at least three bike lengths over Klöden. Vinokourov was at least as far behind in third, with Rodríguez a similar distance in arrears in fourth. The commissaires, somewhat generously, awarded them all the same time.

It had been an exciting finish to the stage, but not one which affected the general classification. With stage five unlikely to create any further time gaps, it leaves the overall win up for grabs in Saturday’s concluding individual time trial. The top 11 riders are currently separated by just 18 seconds.

Sánchez was delighted to have won the stage for Euskaltel-Euskadi on home territory, and with so little to choose between the top riders:

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. Everyone in the top ten now on GC is very close. Anyone can win because the differences are very small. Without a doubt, the time trial is going to be spectacular.

A relieved Rodríguez was happy to hang on to the overall lead, even tough his deficiencies as a time-trialist are likely to cost him the win on Saturday:

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. 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.

Stage five from Eibar to Zalla is the final road stage before Saturday’s decisive time trial. There are seven categorised climbs spread out over the 177km route, with the toughest ones up front. The run-in to the finish is lumpy, with four third-category climbs in the second half of the stage, the last being 12.5km from the finish. Expect an early breakaway and a competitive finish again.

Stage 4 result:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 4:42:37

2. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) same time

3. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) s/t

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) s/t

5. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

General classification:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 17:12:46

2. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) same time

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s/t

4. Chris Horner (RadioShack) + 0:01

5. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) + 0:06

Link: Steephill.tv

Tour of the Basque Country posts

Stage 1: Rodríguez climbs into top spot

Stage 2: Kiryienka goes it alone

Stage 3: Vinokourov wins with trademark attack

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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