Despite a lumpy course that offered six categorized climbs, the sprinters had their day again at Vuelta al Pais Vasco, and Fabio Felline (Trek Factory Racing) proved the fastest of the bunch on Tuesday.
At the end of stage 2, Etixx-Quick-Step was eager to set up its sprinter, Gianni Meersman, but Orica-GreenEdge had other plans, infiltrating the lead-out with Daryl Impey.
Although Impey laced up an excellent lead-out for race leader, and his teammate, Michael Matthews, Felline caught the Australian off-guard with an early jump and held it to the line.
“I provided something of a surprise, and that’s nice,” said Felline. “I haven’t won for a long time, especially from a sprint. I knew I was in decent shape. I won a time trial recently [Critérium International, stage 2], so I’ve got good legs … It’s about using them. To be honest, I came here with the intention of winning something. Today I had my opportunity, and I took it.
“Today it was a dream, and I’m so happy.”
The 175.4km run from Bilbao to Vitoria-Gastiez was the longest day of the Spanish race. The start was delayed by a rider protest prompted by a dangerous finish straight in Monday’s first stage that caused a serious crash in the peloton.
Three riders were off the front early: Louis Vervaeke (Lotto-Soudal), Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), and Sebastien Reichenbach (IAM Cycling).
The gap fell to under one minute with 30 kilometers left, and with 15 kilometers to go, they were caught, despite a last-ditch effort by Txurruka and Reichenbach to attack on the final categorized climb.
With the summit of the category-three Alto de Zaldiaran climb coming under 10 kilometers from the finish, teams battled for position before the final descent.
Cannondale-Garmin’s Tom-Jelte Slagter tried his luck on the fast, sweeping corners of the Zaldiaran, attacking alone.
However, the peloton was keen to set up a bunch sprint, and closed down the solo breakaway with 2.3km left. Etixx-Quick-Step drove the pace at the front of the field. Europcar was also a presence toward the front.
With 1.5km left, Lotto-Soudal moved its train up the right side, trying to barge in on Etixx’s lead-out, but that was disrupted by a roundabout just inside the final kilometer.
Coming into the final 500 meters, Orica-GreenEdge’s Impey sat third wheel within the Etixx train, aiming to cue up Matthews.
As Impey wound up the sprint, Felline took Matthews by surprise, making the jump on Matthews’ right side, momentarily boxing in the Australian next to Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step).
Although Matthews tried to make a final kick in time for the line, he couldn’t overtake the Italian and had to settle for second-place. Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin was third.
“I did not wait for Matthews; today I started my sprint first,” Felline said in a team statement. “First I had the wheel of Kwiatkowski at the end, until the last roundabouts where I went right and jumped in the wheels of Orica-GreenEdge. Out of the final roundabout, I was in third position on the wheel of Matthews. I think at 200-250 meters I started my sprint — I didn’t wait, I jumped first.”
Heading into Wednesday’s hilly third stage, a 170.7km race from Vitoria-Gastiez to Zumarraga, Matthews holds the overall lead. Kwiatkowski is second, and Felline is third overall. All are on the same time in GC, as the race does not offer time bonuses for placings.