HTC’s Gatis Smukulis wins stage 1 at Catalunya

MADRID (AFP) - Latvia's Gatis Smukulis of HTC-Highroad won the first stage of the Tour of Catalonia, a 166.9-kilometre (103.5-mile) ride that started and ended in Lloret de Mar on Monday.

2011 Tour of Catalunya, stage 1
Smukulis wins one for Latvia

LLORET DE MAR, Spain (VN) —  Gatis Smukulis might not be a name that rolls easily off the tongue, but the big Latvian delivered the goods in Monday’s challenging, 166.9km opening stage at the Volta a Catalunya with a breakaway victory.

The 23-year-old Smukulis is best-known, at least in his native Latvia, for being a three-time national time trial champion, and he used those TT skills to fend off the fast-charging pack to claim his first professional road victory ahead of the chasing pack.

Smukulis was part of the day’s main breakaway, but had just enough in the legs to hold off Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), who led the bunch across the line at 28 seconds in arrears. José Rojas (Movistar) crossed the line third with Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) finishing safely in the main pack in 10th in a tough stage to open the 100th running of the Catalan tour.

“I wasn’t sure if we would make it to the finish, but you have to try. I worked hard early in the break to make the difference and then saved my legs for the finale. It was quite hilly in the final 20km, otherwise they would have caught us for sure,” Smukulis said. “Today was more like a lottery. It’s the first stage, there’s no leader yet, so the teams weren’t so quick to organize a chase. I used a lot of energy today, so maybe if I can stay in the pack tomorrow, I can keep the jersey, but that’s it. It’s a hard race with some big names.”

Smukulis is a third-year pro who made the jump to HTC-Highroad after two seasons with Ag2r-La Mondiale.

The victory keeps HTC’s name in the headlines. Hot off the team’s big win at Milan-San Remo with Matt Goss, Smukulis’ victory is HTC’s 15th on the season (see list below).

Big names for hilly test

The seven-stage Catalunya tour is seeing an incredibly deep field, with several Tour de France contenders facing a stiff test throughout the week. Each stage, with the exception of Sunday’s sprint-friendly finale in Barcelona, features some tough climbs.

Contador is the big media draw, especially with the UCI set to decide this week whether or not it will appeal the Spanish cycling federation’s ruling on his ongoing clenbuterol case. The “pistolero del Pinto” downplayed his own chances despite winning the Vuelta a Murcia two weeks ago.

“Of course, I’d like to win, but it will be a difficult race to control,” Contador said before Monday’s start. “There’s no time trial, so it could come down to who is the most aggressive. There are a lot of favorites here, not just me.”

Others include Cadel Evans (BMC), Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner (RadioShack), Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Michele Scarponi (Lampre), Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre (Geox-TMC), and Xavier Tondo (Movistar), who was second overall last year.

HTC-Highroad’s wins in 2011

New Zealand national road title: Hayden Roulston
Stage at Tour Down Under: Matthew Goss
Stage at Tour of Qatar: Mark Renshaw
Overall Tour of Qatar: Renshaw
Stage at Tour of Oman: Goss
Stage at Tour of Oman: Mark Cavendish
Stage at Volta ao Algarve: John Degenkolb
ITT Stage at Volta ao Algarve: Tony Martin
Overall at Volta ao Algarve: Martin
Stage at Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen: Degenkolb
Stage at Paris-Nice: Goss
ITT Stage at Paris-Nice: Martin
Overall Paris-Nice: Martin
Milan-San Remo: Goss
Stage at Volta Catalunya: Smukulis

Defending champion Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was a last-minute withdrawal following the discovery of a cyst on his leg that continues to give him troubles.

Team Sky’s Dario Cioni said the race could be decided in a breakaway.

“We have two options for GC — Urán and Possoni — but it’s difficult to see who will want to take control of the race. Unless someone takes a lot of time on the climbing stage to Andorra, a breakaway could decide this race,” Cioni said. “Today we saw the teams took awhile to organize a chase and the gap was at 15 minutes. This is a very hard parcours this year.”

Sastre and Menchov, however, both threw in the towel and finished with the gruppetto at 13:17 back. Taylor Phinney (BMC), making his first race appearance since the Tour of Oman, rolled in with a group at 14:14 back.

Contador later said his Saxo Bank-Sungard team did its fair share of the load to keep the breakaway from gaining too much time.

“The team really worked hard, because it was important that the breakaway didn’t get an advantage of four or five minutes,” he said. “The stage was very hard and demanding. Today, I tried to avoid a fall or getting dropped, today was hard from the gun, so I hope tomorrow is a little calmer.”

Tuesday’s stage

Tuesday’s 169.3km second stage from Santa Coloma de Farners to Banyoles should give Petacchi and the other sprinters a chance for glory. First they will have to get over the first-category Alt dels Angels at 84km, which comes about halfway through the race that concludes with four finishing circuits in Banyoles.

Stage 1

  • 1. Gatis SMUKULIS, (LAT) HTC-Highroad, in 4:08:48
  • 2. Alessandro PETACCHI, (ITA) Lampre-Farnese Vini, at 28
  • 3. Jose Joaquin ROJAS GIL, (ESP) Movistar, at 28
  • 4. Rigoberto URAN URAN, (COL) Team Sky, at 28
  • 5. Jan BAKELANDTS, (BEL) Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 28


  • 1. Gatis SMUKULIS, (LAT) HTC-Highroad, in 4:08:48
  • 2. Alessandro PETACCHI, (ITA) Lampre-Farnese Vini, at 28
  • 3. Jose Joaquin ROJAS GIL, (ESP) Movistar, at 28
  • 4. Rigoberto URAN URAN, (COL) Team Sky, at 28
  • 5. Jan BAKELANDTS, (BEL) Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 28

Complete results