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Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) delivered a convincing sprint victory in stage 1 of Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco on Monday in Bilbao, Spain.
The 24-year-old Aussie survived the inevitable attacks that came on the last category-two climb, as well as the desperate moves that were made in the race’s closing kilometers, to sprint clear to win ahead of world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step).
“There wasn’t any lead-out trains, it was more of a grovel, so I just placed myself within the top five in the final and started my sprint a little earlier, rather than waiting like I did in Sanremo, so I couldn’t get boxed in,” Matthews said in a team statement.
“I waited a bit too long before launching, but sprinting is also not my top skill, and Matthews is a strong guy for the sprints,” Kwiatkowski said.
Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin was third in the bunch sprint contested at the end of the 162.7km day.
Three riders made the early break. With 48.5km to go, as they began to climb the second of three categorized climbs, Brian Bulgac (LottoNL-Jumbo) was dropped. This left Omar Fraile (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) alone as Movistar picked up the pace behind.
Fraile then rode away from his compatriot on the first of two trips up the category-two ascent of Alto del Vivero.
Alone, off the front, Fraile kept his lead until 17 kilometers to go on the final climb.
The peloton was pared down by attacks over the last climb, but stayed cohesive through the descent to the finish in Bilbao.
BMC’s Philippe Gilbert initiated the hostilities with one kilometer left, but his attack was quickly neutralized by Lotto-Soudal.
After a sweeping right corner into the final straight, Etixx took over the front to cue up Kwiatkowski, who sat third wheel.
As Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) jumped, Matthews came off the world champion’s wheel, blasting up the right side and handily taking the sprint ahead of Kwiatkowski.
“I was quite confident going into the stage,” Matthews said. “We did a recon of the final climb yesterday, and I knew what I was in for; it just came down to what legs I had today.
“It turned out I had really good legs, got myself over the climb and I knew from that reduced bunch I had a pretty good chance of cleaning up the sprint.”
On Tuesday, the race will run from Bilbao to Vitoria-Gasteiz. The 175.4km stage will be very hilly, with six categorized climbs on the menu, although none of them rate harder than category two.