Just when you think you’re witnessing one of the least interesting stages of the summer, a 179-kilometer (111-mile) up and down grinder in the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco, with the predictable break away being dangled on a 2-minute string by the big named teams who will inevitably bunch it over the last climb to keep their race leaders at zero time gap coming into tomorrow’s time trial…pause for a breath…something quite unusual happens.
Some, including yours truly, thought today’s stage would give a break-rider a chance for success, with the big names conserving energy for what will be the defining stage of the race, tomorrow’s 24-km individual time trial in Zalla, Spain. A good 3-man break did get away and it contained two riders from the same team; Dario Cataldo (ITA) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (BEL) from Quickstep, and Michael Albasini (SUI) from HTC-Highroad. Albasini is becoming a common sight in the front group each day, very aggressive riding, and is currently in the red polka dot mountains’ jersey, which is a relatively prestigious shirt to be wearing in this mountainous race. But with two teammates scheming against him, it looked like Quickstep’s stage to lose. However, the peloton which is full of contenders – cause there’s no serious time gap between the first 11 riders – wasn’t very generous, so they never let the breakers have more than about 2 minutes for most of the last part of the race.
Sure enough, the riders in the managed break were swallowed on the lap in Zalla and the day’s work would come down to a sprint for the finish line with the top contenders just wanting to stay close enough to the wheel in front to ensure that a busy-body with a stopwatch couldn’t see enough daylight between to record a time difference. And that’s pretty much how it played out, a calculated, predictable, foreseen conclusion to a long hot day in the saddle over 7 categorized climbs. But that story got rewritten, right at the finish.
Rabobank’s Oscar Freire (ESP) deciding he didn’t like the positioning of riders near him was seen taking his hands off the handlebars within 1-km from the finish to push them aside. A no-no. Adding to it, a teammate (Luis Sanchez?) appeared to have done the same thing. Then sealing their fate and no doubt imprinting their violation in the organizer’s minds, in full view of the finish line, the teammate is caught on tape pushing Freire to the line, which Freire won handily. Or at least thought he did.
When the jury saw the helicopter footage of the misconduct, a decision was made so quickly, that Freire wasn’t even allowed to walk up on the podium minutes later in his home country to bask, however briefly, in Basque (I’ve been waiting all week to say that, sorry). His teammate may also have been disqualified from any top standing on the stage. Lampre’s Francesco Gavazzi (ITA) got that win instead with those behind him all moving up on the day’s standings and no doubt there were some helmets and choice words flying about in the Rabobank bus right afterward.
The race jury put the 5th stage of the 2011 Tour of Basque Country in the books like this today:
Stage 5 Results:
1 GAVAZZI, Francesco (ITA) Lampre ?4:27:03
2 VANDEWALLE, Kristof (BEL) Omega-Lotto ?+0
3 GADRET, John (FRA) AG2R +0
4 LIGTHART, Pim (NED) Vacansoleil +0
5 GARCIA, Egoitz (ESP) Caja Rural +0
6 KIRYIENKA, Vasili (BLR) +0
7 HESJEDAL, Ryder (CAN) Garmin-Cervélo +0
8 CARUSO, Damiano (ITA) Liquigas-Cannondale +0
9 HORNER, Christopher (USA) RadioShack +0
10 SÁNCHEZ, Samuel (ESP) Euskaltel-Euskadi +0
11 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (ESP) Katusha +0
12 GERRANS, Simon (AUS) Team Sky +0
13 SIVTSOV, Kanstantsin (BLR) HTC-Highroad +0
14 KLÖDEN, Andreas (GER) RadioShack +0
So here we are – after 5 stages, numerous categorized climbs, steep Pyrénées Mountains, hot temperatures (starting to see water bottles dumped on heads), numerous thrills and spills, and approximately 850 kilometers (530 miles) – we have a dead heat at the top of the leader-board and absolutely no change from yesterday’s top 11 riders.
General Classification After Stage 5
1. RODRIQUEZ, Joaquin (ESP) Katusha
2. KLODEN, Andreas (GER) RadioShack +0
3. Sanchez, Samuel (ESP) Euskaltel-Euskadi +0
4. HORNER, CHRIS (USA) RADIOSHACK +1
5. HESJEDAL, Ryder (CAN) Garmin-Cervélo +6
6. TONDO, Xavier (ESP) Movistar +66
7. LOPEZ, David (ESP) Movistar +6
8. GESINK, Robert (NED) Rabobank +6
9. INTXAUSTI, Beñat (ESP) Movistar +9
10. VINOKOUROV, Alexandre (KAZ) Astana +10
11. SCHLECK, Andy (LUX) Leopard-Trek +18
With so many big names still in this, Saturday’s ITT will keep us all clued to intermediate and finishing times right to the last rider, Joaquin Rodriquez Oliver. Nice thing about being in the top 5 on a race like this, Horner goes 4th to last and will get a good look at the time he needs to beat to take it all, like he did last year. The team car will keep him posted on his splits and he’ll know exactly where he stands and whether 2011 will be a repeat. Andreas Klöden gets an even better look, going second to last. The team director for this race Viatcheslav Ekimov will surely be yelling in his ear that he can make this happen. Will be fun to watch. Say what you will about this format, but these race organizers in Basque know how to put on a show. I take back everything I said at the start. The way this was set up, tomorrow will be anything but boring.
By George Hurst, staff writer