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Gavazzi gets stage in Basque Country, Freire leads

Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) wins the third stage of Vuelta a País Vasco.

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Oscar Freire (Rabobank) seems cursed at the Vuelta a País Vasco. The three-time world champion just cannot get it right and finished second for the third day in a row in Wednesday’s 187km third stage from Viana to Amurrio.

Freire, who was relegated after winning Monday’s stage, got caught out of position coming into a curve in the final 300m to the line and then edged by a long sprint by third-year pro Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre).

Freire crossed the line a half-wheel length back, but got the bonus of slipping into the leader’s jersey after his Rabobank team worked hard to reel in a dangerous, six-man breakaway in the closing kilometers.

“We were hoping to win today, but it was a complicated sprint,” said Rabobank teammate Juan Manuel Garate. “It cost us a lot of pull back the breakaway. We got some help from Caisse d’Epargne to do some of the work. Everything was in play and we really wanted to win for Oscar, but we got the extra prize of the leader’s jersey.”

Overnight leader Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) didn’t contest the sprint and crossed the line 20th, dropping back to second overall at 2 seconds back. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) finished safely in the pack to remain third overall at 3 seconds back.

Chris Horner (RadioShack) also finished safely in the main pack to slot into 12th at 3 seconds back to keep alive his GC hopes going into tomorrow’s decisive climbing stage.

The four-climb stage was tailor-made for a breakaway attempt and promising group soon formed despite some rain and wind walloping the peloton early in the race.

A group of six riders, including Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Michael Albasini (HTC-Columbia), opened up a lead topping five minutes before the main pack, led by Caisse d’Epargne and Rabobank, started to tighten the grip.

The break held over the day’s final climb at the Cat. 3 Alto de Mendeika with 15.8km to go before being reeled in to set up the bunch sprint.

“I am disappointed because I have never won a stage here. I’ve always gotten into the breakaways, but never had the luck to win,” said Martínez, a former Discovery Channel rider from Etxarri-Aranatz. “When we had a lead, I thought we might have a chance to make it, but I also knew it would be complicated because Caisse d’Epargne started to pull. Albasini was stronger than me anyway. I will continue to attack and hopefully someday I will win a stage here!”

It was a huge win for Gavazzi, the most important of his pro career so far. The former U-23 Italian national champion won a stage at the Giro di Sardegna to open the 2010 season.

The 50th Basque Country tour continues Thursday with the decisive, seven-climb fourth stage from Murgia Zuia to Eibar. There are a string of climbs, with the steep, Cat. 1 Alto de Uzartza just 1km from the finish line.

With no time bonuses in play, Thursday’s stage should give anyone with strong climbing legs a chance to take a commanding lead going into the final-day time trial.

Top 10, Stage 3
1. Francesco Gavazzi (Ita), Lampre, 4:49:52
2. Oscar Freire Gomez (Esp), Rabobank, same time
3. Peter Velits (Svk), HTC-Columbia, s.t.
4. Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), Team Katusha, s.t.
5. Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Esp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, s.t.
6. Davide Vigano (Ita), Team Sky, s.t.
7. Christian Knees (Ger), Milram, s.t.
8. Davide Malacarne (Ita), Quick Step, s.t.
9. Paul Martens (Ger), Rabobank, s.t.
10. Kristijan Koren (Slo), Liquigas Doimo, s.t.

Overall, after stage 3
1. Oscar Freire Gomez (Esp), Rabobank, 14:41:30
2. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Esp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 0:02
3. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Garmin-Transitions, at 0:03
4. Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus), Team Katusha, at 0:03
5. Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Esp), Team Radioshack, at 0:03
6. Marco Pinotti (Ita), HTC-Columbia, at 0:03
7. Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Esp), Team Katusha, at 0:03
8. Damiano Cunego (Ita), Lampre, at 0:03
9. Dries Devenyns (Bel), Quick Step, at 0:03
10. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel), Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 0:03