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Tour of the Basque Country stage 6: Klöden leads RadioShack 1-2

Stage 6: Zalla, 24km individual time trial

HTC-Highroad‘s Tony Martin won the sixth and final stage of  the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco), a 24km individual time trial starting and finishing in Zalla. Andreas Klöden finished second, just nine seconds adrift, which was enough to secure him overall victory as long-time race leader Joaquim Rodríguez could only finish 33rd, a result which saw him slide out of the final top ten. Klöden’s teammate Chris Horner, the 2010 winner, moved up from fourth to second overall to give RadioShack a one-two finish.

Martin dominated his rivals in the time trial (image courtesy of highroadsports.com)

The time trial course, in keeping with the rest of the race, traced a lumpy, undulating route. This included a 4km, 230-metre ascent to the summit of the Bexi, which the peloton had tackled on the run-in to the finish the previous day, at the midway point of the stage. The presence of such a challenging climb added an extra degree of difficulty for the riders in terms of pacing their effort against the clock.

With the competitors setting off in reverse order it was Martin, who is widely regarded as second only to world champion Fabian Cancellara in the time trial discipline, who established the early benchmark of 32:16 for the top contenders to aim at. How good this time was rapidly became apparent, with Garmin-Cervélo‘s Andrew Talansky the only man outside the top 50 able to get within a minute of Martin. Indeed, only three men would record times within 30 seconds of the German powerhouse, who had already registered big time trial victories at the Tour of Algarve (beating Alberto Contador) and Paris-Nice (where he won the overall).

One by one the top ten tried and failed to get anywhere near Martin’s time, with only Klöden threatening his compatriot. In fact he was seven seconds faster at the intermediate checkpoint at the top of Bexi, but he had burnt too much energy too soon and ended up nine seconds behind – still fully 15 ahead of third-placed Pinotti.

Klöden won his second Pais Vasco 11 years after his first

The top three had all started the day on the same time, but Samuel Sánchez ended up only 13th-fastest, which would see him slip down to sixth overall. But an even worse fate befell the yellow jersey of Rodríguez, the last man to start. Never a great time-trialist, he had already conceded 1:21 to Martin at the halfway split, and it seemed that every pedal stroke saw him tumbling further down the order. He eventually finished 2:08 down – good enough only for 33rd-fastest – which saw him drop from first to 11th in the space of barely half an hour.

In the final analysis, Klöden claimed overall victory over teammate Horner by 47 seconds, with Rabobank‘s Robert Gesink moving up to third after a solid seventh place in the time trial. Movistar finished an impressive race by rounding out the top five with Beñat Intxausti and Xavier Tondó, with David López seventh and Vasil Kiryienka tenth.

After the stage, Martin said he had achieved his goal for the week on a difficult time trial course:

The goal of the week here was to win today, and that’s what I’ve achieved. I had a bit of a break after Paris-Nice and when I started this race I knew that I wasn’t going to be at 100% straight away. But I’ve ended the race in great condition, and this win is the confirmation.

It was a very easy course to miscalculate your strength because it was so technical and there was a lot of climbing. The key was making sure you didn’t go too hard in the first part and I had enough strength to finish at 100%.

Race winner Klöden was delighted with both his time trial effort and the week as a whole:

The time trial went so well. I started very fast and the climb went very well for me. I could keep my good pace till the end. Perfect.

It was a very hard week. There were a lot of climbs and so many attacks. It’s unbelievable really that I’ve won here again after 11 years. But it shows what can happen.

Overall, the Tour of the Basque Country was an excellent event featuring lots of tight and unpredictable racing with exciting finishes. Its six stages were won by six different riders from six different teams, and any one of the top ten going into this final stage could easily have won the overall. In a sense, it is a shame the time trial had such a disproportionate event on the overall result, but that is a relatively minor quibble.

RadioShack will be delighted with their week’s work after finishing one-two with Klöden and Horner, but Movistar were the outstanding team in the race, featuring prominently every day and placing four men inside the top ten. HTC-Highroad will also be pleased to have won both the final stage and the mountains classification (Michael Albasini).

And many of the big names who are likely to feature at the Giro d’Italia next month will also be satisfied with their developing form. Despite dropping out of the top ten overall, Rodríguez climbed well – if slightly below the level he showed at last autumn’s Vuelta a España – and earned a confidence-building stage win. However, his weakness at time trials continues to compromise his Grand Tour prospects, even with the current reduced emphasis on the discipline. Sánchez looked racy throughout, and Andy and Fränk Schleck had a couple of opportunities to test their legs, with both finishing comfortably inside the top 20.

But Klöden will be happiest of all, adding a second Basque country win to the one he won in 2000 as a 24-year old. His victory – and the second place of the 39-year old Horner – struck a victory for the old guard in a younger man’s game.

Stage 6 result:

1. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) 32:16

2. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:09

3. Marco Pinotti (HTC-Highroad) +0:24

4. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:29

5. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:42

9. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +0:55

13. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:17

33. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +2:08

General classification:

1. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) 22:12:11

2. Chris Horner (RadioShack) +0:47

3. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +0:47

4. Beñat Intxausti (Movistar) +1:03

5. Xavier Tondó (Movistar) +1:03

6. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +1:08

7. David López (Movistar) +1:28

8. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +1:31

9. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) +1:49

10. Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar) +1:54

11. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +1:59

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

Stage 4: Sánchez doubles up, Rodríguez defends lead

Stage 5: Hands off! Freire disqualified

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Tour of the Basque Country stage 5: Hands off! Freire disqualified

Stage 5: Eibar to Zalla, 177km

Rabobank‘s Óscar Freire was relegated after being first across the finish line in the sprint at Zalla on stage five of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco). After an appeal by the Lampre team, race officials decided that illegal use of hands in the final kilometre had contributed to his victory, as a result of which Francesco Gavazzi was promoted to stage winner. Joaquim Rodríguez retained the leader’s yellow jersey going into tomorrow’s concluding time trial.

Freire had the stage win taken away from him by the commissaires

On another hot day with temperatures exceeding 30ºC, most of the major contenders were happy to conserve their energy for tomorrow. After a few initial attacks had been pulled back in, an escape group of three finally slipped away containing HTC-Highroad‘s Michael Albasini, who was seeking to clinch the mountains classification, and the Quick Step pair of Dario Cataldo and Kevin Seeldraeyers. Albasini sat up with 20km to go, having secured all the climbing points he needed, and soon after Cataldo dropped away from Seeldraeyers as they approached the seventh and final climb of the day.

With the peloton closing in on Seeldraeyers with 15km remaining, Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) leapt across the gap and continued on over the top of the Quick Step rider. He was quickly joined by Movistar‘s David López – a significant threat in the overall, just six seconds off the lead – and then Vacansoleil‘s Wouter Poels also bridged the gap to form a dangerous three-man break. With Rabobank leading the pursuit, the trio pulled out an advantage of 18 seconds before support from RadioShack and Lampre reeled them back in with 4.5km to the finish.

Gavazzi was promoted to stage winner after a successful Lampre appeal

At just over 3km to go, HTC’s Marco Pinotti jumped off the front of the peloton but his escape was short-lived, as was that of the counter-attacking Steve Cummings (Sky), with Rabobank determined to keep everything together to set up Freire. Despite a late effort by Samuel Sánchez just after the flamme rouge, Freire got a good lead-out from teammate Luis León Sánchez, squeezing through just inside the barriers to finish a length ahead of Gavazzi, with Kristof Vandewalle (Quick Step) and, surprisingly, John Gadret (Ag2R-La Mondiale), who is better known as a climber, rounding out the top four.

However, overhead TV images suggested that both Rabobank men had lifted their hands off their handlebars in the closing kilometre to nudge other riders aside, and that Sánchez had also given Freire a helping push as he went past. As a result, the pair were relegated to the back of the front bunch, in 47th and 48th, with Gavazzi being awarded the victory instead.

Freire felt hard done by after learning that the victory had been taken away from him:

I am surprised at [the disqualification]. It’s not fair. I demonstrated that I was the strongest in the final 200 metres. [Luis] touched me, but you shouldn’t really take it into account, because it was him who almost closed me down and the differences were already made.

It is the second time in as many years that Freire has been disqualified at this race. In 2010, he was adjudged to have blocked another rider in the sprint, and was relegated to second place. The stage was awarded to Alejandro Valverde, who was subsequently banned for doping, with the win being retrospectively given back to Freire.

The race ends tomorrow with a 24km individual time trial. Rodríguez, who struggles in this discipline, will be hard pressed to defend even a podium position, with just ten seconds separating the top ten riders on general classification.

Stage 5 result:

1. Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) 4:27:03

2. Kristof Vandewalle (Quick Step) same time

3. John Gadret (AG2R-La Mondiale) s/t

4. Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Egoitz Garcia (Caja Rural) s/t

General classification:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 21:39:46

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

Stage 4: Sánchez doubles up, Rodríguez defends lead

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

Tour of the Basque Country stage 3: Vinokourov wins with trademark attack

Stage 3: Villatuerta to Zuia-Murgia, 180 Km

Alexandre Vinokourov held off the entire peloton after launching a successful trademark attack four kilometres from the finish, coming home eight seconds ahead of the field to win stage three of the Tour of the Basque Country and jump up the overall standings. Joaquim Rodríguez leapfrogged Andreas Klöden to reclaim the overall lead.

After several unsuccessful early attempts, HTC-Highroad‘s Tony Martin was the first rider to make an attack stick, riding solo over the day’s first of three climbs before being joined by six others. Amaël Moinard, Francesco Bellotti and Jérôme Pineau subsequently broke away and were finally reeled in with 11km to go. Martin KohlerSerge Renev and Marco Pinotti counter-attacked but were soon reabsorbed. Then Tejay Van Garderen, Alexandr Kolobnev and Kevin Seeldraeyers pulled out around ten seconds, but the move ended in bizarre fashion after Seeldraeyers touched Kolobnev’s rear wheel and slid off into a shallow ditch.

Vinokourov recorded his first win of 2011

Geox-TMC‘s Fabio Duarte then attacked on the short, sharp uncategorised climb about 4km from home. He briefly snapped the elastic at the top but the leaders soon started to come back together again on the descent. It was at this moment that Vinokourov chose to attack, bridging the gap to Duarte and continuing on unassailed as an organised chase failed to materialise in the run-in to the finish. Astana‘s Kazakh captain cruised across the line to win by eight seconds and move up to 11th overall.

Óscar Freire edged out Rabobank teammate Paul Martens by half a wheel to win the sprint for second place, with Vacansoleil‘s Pim Ligthart fourth. Rodríguez finished ahead of Klöden, regaining the yellow jersey which he had lost on stage two. Overall, the top nine riders on the general classification are separated by just six seconds.

Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) did not finish the stage. Basso said that he had been feeling worse and worse as the race had gone on.

Vinokourov was pleased to break his 2011 duck as he builds towards his defence of Liège-Bastogne-Liège later this month:

It’s my first win this year and the first in the Basque Country. I have been here seven or eight times but never had any luck. It is a big victory for me and the team. Everyone expected a victory from the leader and here it is – and I hope that now I will reach many more.

Race leader Rodríguez predicted a tough day ahead today (Thursday):

Tomorrow will be a big war. We’ll see if I am up to it to fight for the overall. To tell the truth, I don’t like the climb. The only time I raced up it, I got dropped. We’ll see if I can do a little better tomorrow.

It’s all very close. I see Sánchez a little sharper than anyone else. But Horner and Klöden are both strong, and there’s Gesink. It should be a beautiful stage.

Stage four will see another tough mountainous day on a route which takes the peloton 179km from Amurrio to Arrate. There are seven categorised climbs, with all but one being crammed into the back half of the stage, including two ascents of the same first-category mountain. First time round, the riders will have to negotiate an increasingly steep 4.8km climb with an average gradient of 8.4%. Then, as the final climb of the day, the ascent is extended to 5.8km with the summit being just 1.4km from the finish. With Friday’s fifth stage being relatively flat and unlikely to result in time gaps Rodríguez, a poor time-trialist, will hope to pull out a lead which he can then defend in the concluding time trial on Saturday.

Stage 3 result:

1. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) 4:20:38

2. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) + 0:08

3. Paul Martens (Rabobank) same time

4. Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Mikaël Cherel (AG2R-La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 12:30:09

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

Tour of the Basque Country stage 2: Kiryienka goes it alone

Stage 2: Zumarraga to Lekunberri, 163km

Movistar‘s Vasil Kiryienka was rewarded for an attacking ride after he soloed off the front of a five-man break to take victory in Lekunberri. The 29-year old Belarusian displayed impressive strength after an aggressive showing on the final climb of the day, followed by his stage-winning attack inside the final two kilometres.

Earlier, four men had formed the day’s escape group: Dario Cataldo (Quick Step), Rafael Valls Ferri (Geox), Amaël Moinard (BMC) and Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana), who at one stage led by nearly six minutes. They were swallowed up after the sixth of the day’s seven categorised climbs, with nearly 30km remaining.

Garmin-Cervélo, who had led the latter stages of the chase, continued to drive an aggressive 50kph pace at the front to keep the bunch together and dissuade any further attacks on the approach to the first-category Azpiroz. The ascent averages 8.5% over its 3.2km length, and with the summit just 3km from the finish it positively encourages attacks from the climbers.

It didn’t take long for the first attack to happen. Fabio Duarte (Geox) shot off the front of the peloton at 5km out and did not elicit an immediate response from anyone. Other riders launched exploratory attacks, but it was Kiryienka who initiated the next serious one. Although he was quickly marked by Fränk Schleck and Chris Horner, his acceleration was enough to expose the sluggishness of Jurgen van den Broeck and 2010 Giro champion Ivan Basso, both of whom will be expected to be among the major players in the mountains later in the season.

Kiryienka claimed his first win in nearly 3 years

The trio were brought back to the lead bunch before the summit, with Movistar well represented at the front but the yellow jersey of Joachim Rodríguez noticeably lacking Katusha teammates to support him. Alexandre Vinokourov eased away from the front of the group on the descent, with Kiryienka and three others forming a final breakaway of five who were able to maintain a four or five second advantage as they sped into Lekunberri.

With 1.6km to go, just as his fellow escapees were busy checking over their shoulders at their pursuers and calculating how to manage the final sprint, Kiryienka jumped off the front with a perfectly timed move which allowed him to speed to the line unchallenged to claim a comfortable win.

Two seconds behind, Andreas Klöden won the sprint for second ahead of Andy Schleck, which promoted him into the race lead over Rodríguez on count-back. Samuel Sánchez is third overall, with last year’s winner Horner just one second back in fourth.

A happy Kiryienka celebrated his first win since taking a stage of the 2008 Giro d’Italia:

This is my first win for a long time, so I’m very happy. I’ve often worked for the rest of the team but it’s nice to win, especially here because I live very close [in Pamplona].

I have to thank my teammates because there were three or four of us at the top of the last climb. We don’t have a big leader because Alejandro [Valverde] is not with us but we’ve got lots of strong riders who can win stages and we’re all feeling pretty good: David López, Beñat Intxausti and Xavier Tondó are all going well. I’m not going badly either.

Stage three from Villatuerta to Zuia-Murgia is the longest of the race at 180km but is relatively flat, featuring just three categorised climbs. There is, however, a testing uncategorised climb just 3km from home which should ensure a lively finish.

Stage 2 result:

1. Vasil Kiryienka (Movistar) 4:06:39

2. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) + 0:02

3. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) same time

4. Chris Sørensen (Saxo Bank-SunGard) s/t

5. Chris Horner (RadioShack) s/t

General classification:

1. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) 8:09:23

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 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

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