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Alberto Contador wins stage 3 of the Basque tour and takes over the lead from Sanchez

In a thrilling preview of what awaits in the Tour de France later this summer, some of cycling’s top climbers went mano-a-mano up the precipitous green hills of Spain’s Basque Country in Wednesday’s third stage at the Vuelta al País Vasco. Alberto Contador (Astana) attacked with 5km to go on the short but steep Cat. 1 Alto de Ixua to drop rivals he’ll be facing off against in July and ride into the overall leader’s jersey.

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By Andrew Hood

In a thrilling preview of what awaits in the Tour de France later this summer, some of cycling’s top climbers went mano-a-mano up the precipitous green hills of Spain’s Basque Country in Wednesday’s third stage at the Vuelta al País Vasco.

Alberto Contador (Astana) attacked with 5km to go on the short but steep Cat. 1 Alto de Ixua to drop rivals he’ll be facing off against in July and ride into the overall leader’s jersey.

The defending champion slipped across the line just nine seconds ahead of the chasing trio of Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Toni Colom (Katusha), but it was enough for him to win the stage and take a slender, overall lead.

It’s not over yet, with Saturday’s final, 24km individual time trial stage on tap, but it puts Contador on good footing to win the Vuelta al País Vasco for the second year in a row.

“I’m happy to have been able to win the stage, but the climb wasn’t ideal to open up big gaps. The road surface was good and the riders were able to work together,” Contador said. “I always try to win if I can. The conditions are a little different than last year, so this year I am more tranquil than I was last year.”

Overnight leader Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) couldn’t match the pace and ceded 36 seconds to drop to seventh. Daminao Cunego (Lampre) slotted into fifth at 28 seconds back and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) in sixth with 33 seconds.

A winner here last year, Contador danced on the pedals and parted a sea of rabid Basque fans to take control of the weeklong race.

Astana set a blistering pace, led by an impressive performance by Chris Horner to reel in the final remnants of an eight-man breakaway ahead of the final fireworks.

Racing in Europe for the first time this season, Horner took two major pulls on the lower half of the final climb to rip apart the peloton and roll out the red carpet for Contador.

“We wanted to make the race hard today and the team did a great job to make for a demanding stage,” Contador said.

Two more transition stages Thursday and Friday remain ahead of Saturday’s technical, 24km TT in Zalla. Everyone knows nothing will be decided until the final rider crosses the line.

“The differences today were small and the overall is still wide open,” Contador said. “The time trial will decide everything. If I have a good day (Saturday), it might be enough, but we have riders like Evans and (Michael) Rogers who are specialists and very strong. Nothing is decided.”

Attacks on the Ixua

Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r) and Johan Tschoop (Bouygues Telecom) hit Elgoibar at the base of the final climb up the Cat. 1 Alto de Ixua nursing a slender, 27-second lead with 14km to go.

The pair was part an eight-man breakaway that pulled clear in the second hour of racing in the five-climb stage, but their adventure ended with 10km to go as the big guns pulled out their artillery.

Astana steered the pack to the base of the final climb, with Christian Pfannberger (Katusha) at the nose of the pack with 7.5km to go. Astana’s Chris Horner – back in top form in his first race this year in Europe – took a tremendous final pull that quickly fractured the lead group with 6.5km to go.

The rhythm destroyed the lead group, leaving just Contador, Colom and Cunego, with the other top riders such as Evans, Sánchez and the Schleck brothers strung out behind. Overnight leader León Sánchez struggled to mark the wheel.

With León Sánchez gapped by 10 seconds, Horner moved back to the front with 5.5km to go took one more blistering pull.

With 5km to go, Contador bolted away, with only Evans trying to stay with him. With that attack, León Sánchez clicked down a gear and gave chase at 16 seconds back. Joaquin Rodríguez helped his Caisse d’Epargne captain to try to limit the damage.

Chasing at 10 seconds back were Cunego, Evans, Samuel Sánchez and Colom, with León Sánchez another 20 seconds off the back.

Evans chased along, but Colom and Sánchez caught his wheel and took a few seconds back in the final kilometer.

Early break

It was cloudy and cool with a hint of rain at the start in Villatuerta for the decisive stage.

Eight riders snuck away after a very fast first hour of racing, when the average speed topped more 45kph. In the group were some dangerous riders: Iñigo Cuesta (Cervélo TestTeam), Javier Mejias (Fuji-Servetto), Linus Gerdemann (Milram), Johan Tschoop and Yukira Arshiro (Bougyues), Alexandre Botcharov (Katusha) and Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r).

The leading eight his the Cat. 2 Karabeita climb with 51km to go nursing a lead of nearly three minutes. Lampre, Liquigas and Astana set the pace on the main pack.

Astana put four riders on the front to turn the screws that much more, trimming the lead down to 1:07 with 36km to go on the first of two climbs up the decisive Cat. 1 Alto de Ixua (510 vertical meters at 9.8 percent). Leading the charge were Jesus Hernandez, and Chris Horner, with Contador floating at the front.

Only Tschoop and Nocentini could stave off the inevitable. Impressive crowds of passionate Basque fans lined the upper reaches of the narrow Ixua climb and the leading pair widened their gap to 1:28 on the sinuous, narrow descent.

Tschoop and Nocentini held tough over the Cat. 2 San Miguel climb with 23km to go as the rest of the day’s breakaway were scooped up, but their gap was reduced to 43 seconds by the top of the climb.

Thursday’s stage

The 49th Vuelta al País Vasco continues Thursday with the 161km fourth stage from Eibar to Gueñes. Typical of the region, there are plenty of climbs with no less than seven on the day’s menu.

The main obstacle comes with the Cat. 1 Alto de Urkiola at 29km that will likely launch early sorties. A string of four third-category climbs rounds out the last half of the stage, but it’s relatively flat in the closing 30km to the line.

Results

Stage 3, top 20:
1. Alberto Contador (ESP/AST) 4hr 16min 29sec

2. Cadel Evans (AUS/SIL) at 9sec

3. Samuel Sanchez (ESP/EUS) 9

4. Antonio Colom (ESP/KAT) 9

5. Damiano Cunego (ITA/LAM) 28

6. Robert Gesink (NED/RAB) 33

7. Luis Leon Sanchez (ESP/GCE) 36

8. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/LIQ) 55

9. Fredrik Kessiakoff (SWE/SDV) 55

10. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA/LIQ) 55

11. Sandy Casar (FRA/FDJ) 55

12. David Moncoutie (FRA/COF) 55

13. Jakob Diemer Fuglsang (DEN/SAX) 55

14. Joaquin Rodriguez (ESP/GCE) 55

15. Vladimir Efimkin (RUS/A2R) 1min 12sec

16. Chris Horner (USA/AST) 1:12.

17. Michael Rogers (AUS/THR) 1:12.

18. Andrea Noe (ITA/LIQ) 1:12.

19. Matthew Lloyd (AUS/SIL) 1:12.

20. Egoi Martinez (ESP/EUS) 1:12.

GC after stage 3, top 20:
1. Alberto Contador (ESP/AST) 11hr 59min 08sec
2. Samuel Sanchez (ESP/EUS) at 9sec
3. Cadel Evans (AUS/SIL) 9
4. Antonio Colom (ESP/KAT) 9
5. Damiano Cunego (ITA/LAM) 28
6. Robert Gesink (NED/RAB) 33
7. Luis Leon Sanchez (ESP/GCE) 36
8. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/LIQ) 55
9. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA/LIQ) 55
10. Sandy Casar (FRA/FDJ) 55
11. Joaquin Rodriguez (ESP/GCE) 55
12. Christian Knees (GER/MRM) 1min 12sec
13. Michael Rogers (AUS/THR) 1:12.
14. Egoi Martinez (ESP/EUS) 1:12.
15. Chris Horner (USA/AST) 1:12.
16. Frank Schleck (LUX/SAX) 1:12.
17. Dries Devenyns (BEL/QST) 1:12.
18. David Lopez (ESP/GCE) 1:12.
19. Fredrik Kessiakoff (SWE/SDV) 1:35.
20. Jakob Diemer Fuglsang (DEN/SAX) 1:37.