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By Andrew Hood
The 24 Basque riders starting the five-day Vuelta a Pais Vasco (the Tour of the Basque Country) believethey own this race.For a Basque racer, losing this week in this race issomething akin to an American team folding to France in baseball. So youcould say the New York Yankees lost to Paris today.The local boys in orange from the Euskaltel-Euskadi team tried theirbest to pull off a victory in the opening stage of the 2002 Vuelta a PaisVasco on Monday, but it was another team in orange – that of the DutchRabobank team – that triumphed. The best the locally sponsored squad couldmuster was fourth for David Etxebarria (Euskaltel), while Beat Zberg wonthe stage and the txapela, the local Basque hat awarded throughout therace.”It was a waste of effort,” lamented Inaki Isasi Flores of Euskaltel.”We tried everything today, but it wasn’t meant to be.”The 139 km (86-mile) first stage featured six climbs, with the day’shighest obstacle coming with the Category II, 2145-foot Alto de Ubal at48 km. Riders enjoyed sunny, warm skies, rare for this part of Spain typicallyhit by blustery spring storms.The action started early in the circuit course out of Zalla, a quaintBasque village 20 miles west of Bilboa. Alberto Lopez de Munain (Euskaltel)and Torsten Schmidt (Gerolsteiner) attacked 23 km into the race and thepair cleared the Cat. III Alto de la Escrita at 41 km with an advantageof 2:45.Six riders – Edo Bolts (Telekom), Francisco Vila (ibanesto.com), PietroCaucchioli (Alessio), Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel), Igor Astarloa (Saeco)and Gonzalo Bayarry (Jazztel) – bridged out. ONCE’s Joseba Beloki triedas well, but the peloton wouldn’t let the two-time Tour de France podium-finisherescape its clutches.The group worked together over Alto de Ubal and the second pass on theAlto de la Escrita, but Coast, Mapei and Saeco worked to reel in the breakwith 48 km to go into the stage.The peloton roared over the first pass of the Cat. III Alto de Beziat 103 km and the Alto de Avellaneda, another Cat. III at 121 km. It wasthe day’s sixth and final climb that finally broke the peloton.Ibanesto.com’s Unai Osa initiated the attack that splintered the leadgroup on 7-percent grades up the four-kilometer climb to Bezi. David Rebellin(Gerolsteiner) pulled away on the harrowing desent and 30 riders clearedoff the front of the fractured peloton.Rebellin was brought back by Francesco Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo) whenParis-Nice winner Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom) tried to shake the leadgroup of about 30 riders, but was pulled back by Etxebarria with just over2 kilometers to go.The lead group came in together and it was Zberg fastest in the masssprint with Italians Rebellin and Stefano Garzelli (Mapei) rounding outthe top-three.”I am very happy to win today. You know the Spanish riders are alwaysgoing to attack, so we used that in our favor and played our card justright,” Zberg said.The Vuelta a Pais Vasco continues Tuesday with a long, difficult dayfeaturing four rated climbs during the 183-km (113-mile) second stage fromZalla to Vittoria on the northern edge of Spain’s meseta, with the 1100-meter Cat. I Alto de la Herrera at 146 km.
Vuelta a Pais Vasco, stage one, Zalla-Zalla, Spain
1. Beat Zberg (Swi), Rabobank, 139 km in 3:32:58, (39.161 kph);
2. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner;
3. Stefano Garzelli (I), Mapei;
4. David Etxebarria (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi;
5. Francesco Casagrande (I), Fassa Bortolo.;
6. Gonzalo Bayarri (Sp), Jazztel.;
7. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Saeco;
8. Rik Vergrugghe (B), Lotto;
9. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi;
10. Mario Aerts (B), Lotto, sll s.t.