Today’s 4th stage of the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco, Tour of the Basque Country in Spain, was predicted by many to be the decisive battle in the mountains that would reveal the one or two riders that could stomp down on the field and make this race their own. And while it was dramatic on the last category 1 climb up the Alto de Uzartza and then the final 2-kilometer high-speed descent to the line in the town of Eibar, it really didn’t produce a solid front-runner. The top 10-11 contenders proved too experienced, alert and well matched to allow any one rider a big gap, or even a little gap. Though Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez (ESP) won the stage, with Team RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden (GER) right on his heels, and Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov (KAZ) third, they, and the 11 riders in the front pack with them, were given the same time – no time difference after 177 kilometers of mountains and 4 hours, 42 minutes and 34 seconds in the saddle.
There is only 10 seconds separating the top 10 riders after today and given Friday’s layout, it’s highly doubtful any of them can make a successful move on the others. So, as steep and beautiful as the great mountains of the Pyrénées have been, they have now been relegated to just an interesting side show in a race that will now, barring some very weird circumstance, be decided by Saturday’s 24-kilometer time trial in Zalla, Spain.
There was a long break away today starting at about 20-kilometers with 3 men trying their luck; HTC-Highroad’s Michael Albasini (SUI), Vacansoleil’s Maxim Belkov (RUS) and Caja Rural’s Julian Sanchez (ESP). They stayed away for approximately 150 kilometers, but once again Leopard-Trek gave the order to the powerful Jens Voigt (GER) to hunt them down, wanting to position the Schleck brothers for a move on the last climb (LUX). Jens did, what Jens does, catching and passing the break at about 8.5 kms to the finish with a powerful turn at the front of the peloton.
Once they got into the final climb, with many domestiques and some pre-race favorites started to quickly drop off the back end of the peloton as the race went uphill (an average 8.5% grade for 5.8 kms). However, 11 riders formed a loose bunch at the front and just didn’t seem capable of shaking each other, though several attacks were attempted. It does not appear that any one rider has come here with the form that can dominate in these conditions.
Tomorrow will certainly be another great day in the Pyrénées with a 179-kilometer climbing fest over 7 categorized mountains, in weather that so far has been brilliant. A breakaway has a good chance tomorrow, as the main contenders will want to conserve their strength as much as possible for Saturday’s race of truth.
Last year’s winner, Team RadioShack’s Chris Horner (USA) again looked very good on the day, climbing well and staying out of trouble, finishing 7th on the stage, with no time gap to the leader. So Chris is still just one-second back in 4th on the general classification with the top 3 in a virtual dead heat on time. Andreas Klöden is riding a great race and deserves to be on that final podium. Will it be on the top step? Still anyone’s race right now. Hope they brought their TT legs to this one.
Stage 4 Results:
1. SANCHEZ, Samuel (ESP) Euskaltel-Euskadi 4:42:34
2. KLODEN, Andreas (GER) RadioShack +0
3. VINOKOUROV, Alexandre (KAZ) Astana +0
4. RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (ESP) Katusha +0
5. HESJEDAL, Ryder (CAN) Garmin-Cervélo +0
6. TONDO, Xavier (ESP) Movistar +0
7. HORNER, Chris (USA) RadioShack +0
8. GESINK, Robert (NED) Rabobank +0
9. INTXAUSTI, Beñat, (ES) Movistar +0
10. LOPEZ, David (ESP) Movistar +0
11. SCHLECK, Andy (LUX) Leopard-Trek +0
1. RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (ESP) Katusha 17:12:46
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 +6
7. GESINK, Robert (NED) Rabobank +6
8. LOPEZ, David (ESP) Movistar +6
9. INTXAUSTI, Beñat, (ES) Movistar +9
10. VINOKOUROV, Alexandre (KAZ) Astana +10
11. SCHLECK, Andy (LUX) Leopard-Trek +18
By George Hurst, staff writer