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Hesjedal third as Valverde awarded win at Basque Country opener

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) sprinted to fourth as Oscar Freire (Rabobank) darted to an apparent victory in Monday’s opener Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta ciclista al Pais Vasco in Spanish) in northern Spain, only to see judges award the win to Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne).

Valverde crossed the line second, but raised his hand in protest as Freire closed down his sprint on the left side of the barriers in the hilly, 152km stage at Zierbena. Christophe Le Mevel (FDJeux) crossed the line third.

The stage 1 profile

Caisse d’Epargne officials said they did not formally protest, but Freire was relegated by race judges, handing Valverde the victory and the leader’s jersey while Hesjedal slotted into third on the official GC.

Hesjedal and Garmin-Transitions teammate Daniel Martin along with Chris Horner (RadioShack) made it safely across the line with an elite group of 24 riders that included most of the top favorites for overall victory.

The biggest name missing the move was Olympic champion and pre-race favorite Sammy Sánchez from local team, Euskaltel-Euskadi. Sánchez lost contact of an elite, eight-man breakaway on the day’s final climb that included Horner, Valverde and Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha) and forfeited 1:38 that all but erased any chance of overall victory.

Racing under sunny skies and warm temperatures atypical of Basque Country’s unpredictable spring weather, Horner rode smartly to mark attacks on the day’s final of five rated climbs up the very steep, Cat. 2 Alto de las Calizas with 18.7km to go.

Joining Horner in the potentially decisive move were Valverde, Volta a Catalunya and GP Miguel Indurain winner Rodríguez, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), Robert Gesink (Rabobank), two Euskaltel-Euskadi teammates Amets Txurruka and Benat Intxausti, Jurgen Vandenbroucke (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Le Mevel.

The leaders held a promising, 20-second gap as it snaked down a twisting, well-surfaced descent toward the coastal town of Zierbena.

Hesjedal led the chase of about a dozen riders, including Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia), Ben Hermans and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack), Martin and Freire. Txurruka dropped back to try to help the desperately chasing Sánchez.

The two groups joined up with 2km to go to set up the small group sprint into a slightly rising finale in Zierbena.

Garmin-Transitions rider Christian Meier was away in an early breakaway and earned the day’s King of the Mountains jersey for the effort.

The 50th edition of the Basque Country tour continues Tuesday with the six-climb, 217km second stage from Zierbena to Viana. The route opens with two third-category climbs before tackling the day’s main obstacle with the Cat. 1 Alto de Orduña which tops at 900m, sure to produce the day’s main breakaway.

There are three more rated climbs in the final 70km, including the Cat. 3 Alto de Bargota with 8km to go, which should spark some vicious attacks before a rising finish to the line.

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