By Andrew Hood
Franco Pellizotti won Thursday’s fourth stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco that was shortened due to cold weather while Aitor Osa widened his overall lead.
Several inches of snow fell overnight on the high peaks surrounding the start of the stage at Alsasua, prompting officials to shorten it by 64 kilometers and taking out climbs over the category-two Alto de Zuarrarrate (780 meters) and the category-three Alto de Huitzi (792 meters).
A major descent to the coastal plain of northern Spain was also eliminated after several riders suffered minor hypothermia in Wednesday’s frigid stage, including Tuesday’s stage-winner Cesar Garcia Calvo (Relax), who was among 29 riders who abandoned Wednesday.
Even with the drop in elevation, it remained miserably cold and rainy with temperatures hovering in the mid-40s. Euskaltel’s Unai Etxebarria and Coast’s Alex Zülle didn’t start.
Wednesday’s stage turned the 42nd Vuelta a Pais Vasco into a race of two: iBanesto.com’s Aitor Usa vs. Cofidis’ Bingen Fernandez. Thursday’s shortened stage made it Osa’s race to lose after Fernandez fell 29 seconds back.
Four riders pulled away early – Kelme’s Santiago Perez, Jazztel’s Rafael Casero, CSC’s Nicki Sorensen and Alessio’s Franco Pellizotti, who was the best-placed rider, starting the day in 27th at 3:45 back.
The quartet topped over the first climb up the category-two Alto de Alkiza with 1:40 gap and widened it to 2:06 on the descent, but ibanesto.com worked the front of the main peloton to keep Pellizotti from getting too far away.
Sorensen set tempo up the second ascent at Alkiza and pulled away midway up the climb and Pellizotti followed. The pair topped over 13 seconds ahead of Casero and Perez. Meanwhile, Lotto’s Mario Aerts and Euskaltel’s David Etxebarria and Samuel Sanchez slipped off the front group, down to about 40 riders, and gave chase down the narrow, steep descent to Villabona.
Pellizotti had the best of Sorensen on the short climb up the final kilometer to the finish.
“Today was very cold and many riders were concerned about the snow on the mountains, so we are satisfied they shortened the stage after what happened yesterday,” said Pellizotti, who jumped to third for his efforts.
The Vuelta al Pais Vasco concludes Friday with a split stage; a 96-km, six-climb stage in the morning from Villabona to Elgoibar followed by a 15.2-km time trial over the Alto Azkarate in the afternoon.
Results, stage 4, Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Lizartza to Villabona (80
1. Franco Pellizotti (I), Alessio, 2:11:00;
2. Nicki Sorensen (Den), CSC-Tiscali, at 0:05;
3. David Etxebarria (Sp), Euskaltel, at 0:18;
4. Mario Aerts (B), Lotto, at 0:21;
5. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel, same time;
6. Rafael Casero (Sp), Jazztel, at 0:30;
7. Aitor Osa (Sp), ibanesto.com, at 0:32;
8. Beat Zberg (Sui), Rabobank;
9. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), Telekom;
10. Gonzalo Bayarri (Sp), Jazztel, all s.t.
Overall standings after 4 stages:
1. Aitor Osa (Sp), ibanesto.com, 15:02:43;
2. Bingen Fernandez (Sp), Cofidis, at 0:29;
3. Franco Pellizotti (I), Allesio, at 3:13;
4. David Etxebarria (Sp), Euskaltel, at 3:31;
5. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel, at 3:34;
6. Mario Aerts (B), Lotto, s.t.;
7. Beat Zberg (Sui), Rabobank, at 3:45;
8. Gonzalo Bayarri (Sp), Jazztel, s.t.;
9. Stefano Garzelli (I), Mapei, s.t.;
10. Fernando Escartin (Sp), Coast, s.t.