Team RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden (GER) continuing to display exceptional form this season came in 3rd today with ‘The Shack’s’ Christopher Horner (USA) close behind in today’s 150-kilometer mountainous first stage of the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco, Tour of the Basque Country in Northeast Spain. This first of 6 stages was deemed by some to be the easier of the continuous mountain treks to come, but it didn’t look that way today, as many top-tier riders dismounted and walked up the inhumanly steep final climb.
RadioShack could not have planned for better positioning after this opening stage with 2 top riders, including last year’s winner Horner, at the front – though some official timekeeper with an unfriendly stopwatch put Chris 1-second down from the top three. It may have looked conclusive on the course, but not that much was decided today. Many of the dangerous top contenders are still within striking distance, and possibly not even within this current top-ten:
1 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (ESP) Katusha 4:02.42
2 SÁNCHEZ, Samuel (ESP) Euskaltel Same Time
3 KLÖDEN, Andreas (GER) RadioShack Same Time
4 HORNER, Christopher (USA) RadioShack 1 second back
5 HESJEDAL, Ryder (CAN) Garmin 6 seconds back
6 CUNEGO, Damiano (ITA) Lampre 6 seconds back
7 LOPEZ, David (ESP) Movistar 6 seconds back
8 GESINK, Robert (NED) Rabobank 6 seconds back
9 DI LUCA, Danilo (ITAL) Katusha 6 seconds back
10 TONDO, Xavier (ESP) Movistar 9 seconds back
Astana’s Vinokourov (KAZ) is just 18 seconds back after today in a pack with Sky’s Uran (COL), Rabobank’s Sanchez (ESP), Liquigas’ Basso (ITA), and Leopard-Trek’s Schleck brothers not to mention Omega-Lotto’s Van Den Broeck and several other dangerous riders just a slight time difference back. In some flatter races, the time differences might already be defining, but here in Basque country the seconds, even minutes, can be wiped out in an a single climb, let alone the multiple climbs to come. As we were reminded today, whoever is firing on all cylinders in these steep mountains can erase someone’s lead in the time it takes to go to a commercial break on TV, so the current time advantage is only a guideline of things to come. However, as a guideline it’s a pretty good barometer of who came to contend this race and who came to pedal through it. It appears that Team RadioShack came to race.
Today’s stage started and finished in the picturesque city of Zumarraga, in the Gipuzkoa Province in the middle of the Basque Country and involved 7 categorized climbs in the steep Pyrénées Mountains, five 3s and two 2s. Of note is that a cat 3 in the Pyrénées is somewhat akin to a cat 1 in most other countries. These are serious sky-gazing assents with hair-on-fire descents that test the credentials of confident mountaineers.
The weather was decent, cloudy but no rain, though the roads were a bit wet from the previous day’s precipitation, so some of the steep downhills were tricky and some of the less proficient descenters had to work hard to catch back up on at the next climb when they couldn’t hang on the wheel ahead during the 75-85 kilometer descents..
Early in the stage, RadioShack’s Ivan Rovny (RUS) along with Rabobank’s Bram Tankink (NED) and AG2R’s Mathieu Perget (FRA) tried to get something started breaking off from the main pack at the 8-kilmeter mark. They forged ahead and at one point were reported to have a lead on the main peloton of 9 minutes. They stayed away for most of the day generating hopes on more than one occasion that they might comprise the podium with their gutsy drive. But they were eventually pulled closer by the expectant peloton anticipating a promising finish for their marquee cyclists.
Euskaltel, Leopard-Trek, Garmin and HTC did plenty of work at the front all day to make sure the gap didn’t get beyond reach for their hopefuls. Then doom was spelled for the break when the experienced and powerful Jens Voigt was given the okay to chase for Leopard-Trek. Leading the whole peloton on a furious chase to reel in the front-runners he ate up the gap and caught the leaders at about the 14 km mark and kept going leaving most in his wake as he commandeered the peloton forward.
A big bunch then formed of about 80 riders coming into the final climb. At about 5 kilometers from the finish it was high time for the super domestiques to take a bow and for the show horses to earn their salaries. Some did, some didn’t, but most kept within striking distance.
The crowds on the last nasty climb were thick looking just like one of the Grand Tours; so enthusiastic are the fans of cycling in this region. That’s why so much pressure is put on the Spaniards to do well here and in particular Euskaltel-Euskadi mostly comprised of Basque professionals. They did a lot of work at the front today. This last climb, averaging 9.6% grade, but far worse at the top, was so difficult that many riders had to dismount and walk the final few meters to the crest in an entertaining display of surrender similar to last weekend’s Muur van Geraardsbergen in Flanders. What awaited the spent competitors on the other side were dangerously fast downhills. It was here that those who excel at climbing and downhilling could shine and it was here that Andreas Klöden caught the front-runners. – Horner, Sanchez and Rodriguez.
Chris Horner had fried his legs on the last climb and so it was to Andreas to attempt to take the stage if he could. Klöden has recently shown that under the right circumstances he can sprint to win a stage, but it was not to be today. But no matter, because if you came here to contest the overall GC, today’s win only gave you bragging rights cause the top 3 have the same time, with Horner one second down, going into tomorrows stage.
The Vuelta al País Vasco is a scrapper’s race. Strategy is important, a strong team is too, and preparation and planning is as crucial here as in any other race. But the person that wins this race is often a singularly fierce competitor confident enough to mix it up with the world’s best in a technically difficult climbing extravaganza that tests everything one can do on a bike and, in between, your mental composure off it. There’ll be 5 more tests to come. I think Team RadioShack’s veteran leaders are up to the task.
By George Hurst, staff writer