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Sanchez takes stage at Basque Tour, Horner now second

Euskaltel's Samuel Sanchez won the fourth stage of the Tour of the Basque Country on Thursday.

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Horner knocking on Basque Country door

Chris Horner was out-maneuvered by Spanish collaboration that robbed him of a shot at victory in Thursday’s “queen stage” but vows to turn that frustration into overall victory in Saturday’s decisive time trial at the Vuelta al País Vasco.

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Gesink, Valverde and Horner cross the line at two seconds. | Andrew Hood photo

Horner grabbed the demanding Basque Country tour by the scruff of the neck with a searing attack on the Category 1 climb to the summit finish at Arrate to claw into second overall, but his chances at victory were foiled by collaboration between Spanish riders Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who won the stage, and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), who reclaimed the overall lead.

Horner was not happy despite slotting into second overall at one second back and positioning himself for overall victory if things stay the same going into Saturday’s 22km, final-day individual time trial.

“I felt good. I dropped everybody. They worked together – whatever. I can still win it in the time trial,” Horner told VeloNews at the finish line. “I know the (TT) from last year. They won’t be able to do some team tactics there.”

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Sanchez earns the stage win. | Andrew Hood photo

Horner did drop everyone with an impressive surge on very steep, 6km Arrate climb that was lined with tens of thousands of delirious Basque fans.

The RadioShack veteran attacked with 4km to go up the very steep Cat. 1 Arrate climb but was caught on false flats with 1km to go following collaboration between the two Spaniards.

“It was a little Spanish get together. Sánchez didn’t get me. Valverde opened up the gap on him, and then sat up on me on one of the corners. We’ll see if that works later,” Horner said. “The legs are good – I’ll beat ‘em in the time trial.”

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank) each launched strong attacks on the steepest part of the climb on the opening two kilometers before Horner surged to the front to gap everyone. He opened a promising gap and looked to have victory within his grasp, but Sánchez and Valverde worked together on the final 2km of false flats to catch their man.

Sánchez was happy with the victory, but denied there was anything nefarious going on between him and Valverde.

The Olympic champion admitted that he and Valverde are friends, but said their mutual interests were so obvious that there was “no need to even discuss it.”

“Sure, we worked together but it was because we had mutual interests, nothing else,” Sánchez told VeloNews. “(Valverde) was working to gain the leader’s jersey and I was riding to win the stage. It was not against Horner. We would have done the same thing if Gesink was up the road. (Valverde) and I are friends, but we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.”

The overall race was in the balance in Thursday’s six-climb stage and the Basque fans turned out in droves to line the final climb.

Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was the last-man standing from a five-man breakaway that peeled away early in the explosive stage.

Once the leaders hit the grueling steeps of the final climb, all eyes were on Andy Schleck to make a move. The Liège-Bastogne-Liège champion didn’t disappoint, but he quickly realized he didn’t have the legs to win.

“Horner was very strong, and when attacked and passed me, I didn’t see much after that. I focused on my front wheel. I knew Horner was good, he was my favorite to win today,” Schleck told VeloNews. “That’s a pity for Horner, but that’s not a big surprise that they worked together to catch him. Some people thought Valverde didn’t look good, but it was a bluff. He was very strong in the end.”

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Horner remains confident. | Andrew Hood photo

Dutch climber Gesink did well to finish third in the stage and claim third on GC at 1 second adrift while Jean-Christope Peraud (Omega Pharma-Lotto), a former Olympic mountain biker racing in his first full season on the road, climbed well to slot into fourth overall at 32 seconds back.

Pre-race favorite Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha)didn’t have the gas to stay with the best and slotted into ninth overall at 48 seconds back.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) was expecting more, but couldn’t quite stay with the deadly accelerations on the lower half of the climb and fell from third overall to 13th at 1:15.

Friday’s 170km fifth stage from Eibar to Orio features six climbs and is no walk in the park. Valverde said his troops will be on the alert.

“Ideally, a breakaway will go clear and we can just watch our rivals,” Valverde said. “But anything can happen in this race and you have to be super-attentive. There’s never an easy stage at this race. I am feeling good and now I know who the main GC rivals are.”

Tension will build going into Saturday’s decisive time trial, a hilly course that on paper will favor both Horner and Valverde.

Though he is improving against the clock, Gesink is not on the same level as Horner and Valverde, so it should be a two-man shootout for overall victory.

Horner will be looking to take his revenge.

The 50th Basque Country tour continues Friday.

Stage 4
1. Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 160km in 4:05:16
2. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, at 0:02
3. Robert Gesink (Ned), Rabobank, at 0:02
4. Christopher Horner (USA), Team RadioShack, at 0:02
5. Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:33
6. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra), Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 0:33
7. Damiano Cunego (Ita), Lampre-Farnese Vini, at 0:40
8. Andy Schleck (Lux), Team Saxo Bank, at 0:40
9. Sandy Casar (Fra), Française des Jeux, at 0:49
10. Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Sp), Team Katusha, at 0:49

Overall, after Stage 4
1. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne, 18:46:50
2. Christopher Horner (USA), Team RadioShack, at 0:01
3. Robert Gesink (Ned), Rabobank, at 0:01
4. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra), Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 0:32
5. Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:32