Rojas wins Basque Country opener

Movistar rider takes first leader's jersey in 2012 Vuelta al Pais Vasco

“Sprint” stages take on a different color at the hilly Vuelta al País Vasco, which opened Monday in typical fashion with no less than four third-category climbs in a circuit course around Gueñes near Bilbao, Spain.

A two-man breakaway featuring David de la Fuente (Caja Rural) and Davide Mucelli (Utelnsilnord) were duly reeled in ahead of the final climb with 13km to go.

The reigning Spanish national champion squeezed past Wouter Poels (Vacanansoleil-DCM) and Fabian Wegmann (Garmin-Barracuda) to take the flowers as well as the first race leader’s jersey of the six-day Basque tour.

“I saw that Rabobank was organizing things for Matthews, who won Almería, but he didn’t look so good on the final little hump, so I decided to pass him and follow the wheel of Poels. I saw a small opening on the right,” he said. “It was either pass him there or crash; win or hit the deck, and it all worked out.”

Rojas, who has been slowed by crashes and illnesses, notched his first win of 2012 after showing off some climbing legs to follow the attacks late in the stage.

“This is my first win this year, which is important after the bad run I’ve had; a virus, knee problems, crashes and the flu,” he said after the stage. “It’s important for me to win. I am a rider who lives to win. When you’re there, getting close, but the results don’t come, that’s when the doubts start to grow. This win really boosts my morale.”

Pre-race favorite Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) finished safely in the front group that also featured Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), who crossed the line sixth after helping to launch teammate Wegmann.

The 2012 Basque Country tour continues Tuesday with the second stage from Gueñes to Vitoria. The 165km route includes six rated climbs, including two second-category climbs early in the stage that should provoke the day’s main attacks. The sprinters will need their climbing legs again.