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Nairo Quintana (Movistar) won the mountainous stage 4 at the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) on Thursday, the queen stage of the six-day race.
Quintana was part of a seven-man group of GC contenders that formed in the final two kilometers of the 152-kilometer stage, and he sprinted away in the last few hundred meters for the win. Richie Porte (Sky) crossed the line second and his teammate Sergio Henao took third.
“I am very happy,” said Quintana. “It was very difficult today, the wind and cold. The descents were dangerous. I thank me team for their work. Tomorrow there is another mountain stage. The rain will leave its mark, and maybe in the time trial Saturday as well.”
Henao remains in the overall race lead with two days left. Quintana is second, at six seconds, while Porte is third, 10 seconds adrift. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Simon Spilak (Katusha) are fourth and fifth, respectively, also 10 seconds back.
“It was very hard today, but we knew it was going to be with the rain,” said Henao. “We [Sky] are only six here, but we kept it together today. Everyone knows Richie is a better time trialist. We’re going to do everything so the team can win the race.”
The six-day tour closes on Saturday with the 24km time trial at Beaisin. Of the top three, Porte is the most skilled time trialist, having won the final-stage TT at Paris-Nice in March.
Shortly after the start of the Cat. 1 climb up Alto de Usartza, which began with 7.5km left, Spilak launched an attack and broke away from the main field. He passed the two remaining riders from an earlier breakaway — Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r La Mondiale) — at the 5km mark.
At this point, Spilak looked so strong that it appeared he might ride away to the stage victory.
Behind him, a game of chess was unfolding between the GC contenders. Contador, Porte, and Henao all made moves, and the others were forced to follow each time.
Spilak’s legs eventually grew tired on the ascent and he was swallowed up by the group that included Contador, Porte, Quintana, Henao, and Ag2r teammates Carlos Betancur and Jean-Christophe Peraud with 2km left.
Porte got in some massive pulls at the front as the group crested the climb and worked its way through a flat section. Quintana then made his winning move around a corner near the finish line.
“The wind and cold affected me just like everyone else,” said Contador. “Nairo slipped away but the most important thing is that the race is still open. Tomorrow is going to very difficult and anything can happen, with the rain cold and even the descents can be decisive.”
A five-man break formed with just under 100km left, consisting of Velits, Montaguti, Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Daniele Ratto (Cannondale), and Rein Taramae (Cofidis). The group was reduced to three — Velits, Ratto, and Montaguti — near the 38km to go mark.
The peloton started closing the gap, but the trio was able to stay at least two minutes ahead of the pack during the twisty and rain-slicked descent following the penultimate climb of Alto de San Migue. The buffer dropped below two minutes with 9km left, however, and that eventually led to the end of the breakaway.
The race resumes Friday with the 166km stage 5, a demanding course from Eibar to Beasain that has 10 rated climbs on the profile.