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Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) made up for his close call Wednesday with a well-timed attack in the final 500 meters to win Thursday’s fourth stage at the Vuelta al País Vasco and claim the leader’s jersey for the effort.
Overnight leader Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) crossed the line nine seconds in arrears and slipped to second, but took some important gains on dangerous GC rivals at the steep mountain finish at Ibardin.
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) didn’t have punch his legs on the final steep ramps in the closing kilometer and ceded 21 seconds on the stage to slot into third, at 21 seconds back.
The finale was ideal for Rodríguez, who won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico last month in Italy on a similar finale featuring steep ramps tailormade for “Purito.”
“I didn’t know the final climb, but I was asking some local riders about the climb, and it turned out to be perfect for me,” Rodríguez said. “We were hoping for the win yesterday (Rodríguez was second), so we were motivated to try again today. The team rode perfectly and positioned for the final attack.”
Sánchez tried in vain to stay with Rodríguez when the Katusha rider attacked with 300m to go, but he did manage to make some important gains against the likes of Horner and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) that will come in handy for Saturday’s time trial battle at Oñati.
“Today’s finale was ideal for Purito. Once he makes his attack on a finish like this, it’s almost impossible to beat him,” Sánchez said. “We have to be happy so far. We’ve won a stage and had the leader’s jersey. Now we have to get through tomorrow’s stage and then see what happens in the time trial.”
Friday’s 183km fifth stage features four rated climbs, but it’s a relatively smooth run to line, opening the door for a likely breakaway to stay clear while the GC favorites save their legs for Saturday’s TT.
Saturday’s 18.9km individual time trial at Oñati should crown the overall winner and Sánchez is in the driver’s seat.
World time trial champion Martin gave up 21 seconds on the five-climb, mountaintop finish Thursday and settled into 13th at 33 seconds off the pace.
Rodríguez, who admits he’s not the best against the clock, still hopes to battle for the final podium.
“The final time trial is complicated. There is one tough climb, narrow roads, always right and left, so it’s a better course for me,” he said. “We are here to battle for the maximum. I am still hoping to finish on the podium.”
Horner will need to pop a good ride Saturday to claw back the time on Sánchez, who looks to be in winning form.
Fireworks in the finale
The day’s early breakaway was duly checked by Euskaltel and Katusha, with both teams working hard to set up their respective captains for a shot at the stage victory.
Omega Pharma led the charge up the final climb, looking to keep Martin in good position going into Saturday’s decisive time trial.
With two kilometers to go, there were still 25 to 30 riders in the front group.
Maxime Monfort (RadioShack) surged up the left side of the road with just under 2km to go. That opened up the aggression in the pack, drawing out Katusha to cover the move.
Fränk Schleck (RadioShack) then took a dig coming toward the red kite, with the peloton strung out single-file as riders were struggling to keep the wheel.
Sánchez was riding comfortably at the front, covering the moves as Martin powered to the front with 800m to go, trying to maintain a consistently high pace and limit the hard surges that would see him in difficulty. Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil-DCM) hammered the pedals to open a small gap, quickly marked by Rodriguez.
Rodríguez pulled clear with 250 meters to go win the stage, with Sánchez chasing desperately, crossing the line nine seconds back.
Colombian sensation Sergio Henoa (Sky) crossed the line third to slot into fifth overall, at 24 seconds, tied with Robert Kiserlovski (Astana).
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda) kept alive his podium hopes by crossing the line 10th at 17 seconds off the pace and settled into eighth overall, at 29 seconds back.
Tom Danielson (Garmin) was 18th at 27 seconds back and moved into 20th at 1:02 back.