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By Andrew Hood
Bobby Julich (CSC) was back in the spotlight Friday at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco after nipping compatriot Tyler Hamilton (Phonak) by less than one second to win his first race since 1998.
Julich was ecstatic with the narrow victory on a technical, rain-slicked 8.5km course that featured a short, steep climb in the rugged mountains of northern Spain.
“It’s unbelievable. What a comeback in less than a couple of months,” Julich said after covering the course in 11 minutes, 57 seconds (42.62 kph). “The moment I signed with Bjarne Riis I knew this was possible. This feels really good.”
Russian Denis Menchov (Illes Balears) won the overall title after he withstood attacks from Euskaltel-Euskadi in the morning road stage to enter the afternoon time trial with a comfortable 13-second lead over David Etxebarria. Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) moved up to second overall at 21 seconds back after taking sixth in the time trial.
Menchov, who won Thursday’s stage to jump into the overall leader’s jersey, finished fourth in the time trial to pad his overall margin of victory. The Russian said the victory in the challenging, climb-riddled Basque Country race bolsters his confidence for this summer’s Tour de France.
“Since last winter, I’ve been thinking about the Tour de France,” said Menchov, who finished 11th overall and won the best young rider’s jersey last year. “I believe that I can defend myself well in three-week tours, but I still have a lot to learn. I have confidence after last year.”
Americans shone in the rainy, cold stage in northern Spain’s Basque Country, with four riders in the top 15 overall.
Hamilton, a runner-up here last year, looked to have the victory in the time trial until Julich nipped him by less than one second. Hamilton finished 14th overall at 1:09 back. Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) took fifth at 12 seconds slower and finished fifth overall at 34 seconds back while Floyd Landis (U.S. Postal Service) came through 11th in the time trial to take seventh overall.
But it was Julich’s emotional victory that will make the headlines.
“I’m very, very happy right now,” Julich said. “After what I’ve been through a lot the past five years, this victory means a lot for me. I hope to have some more.”
Julich’s last outright victories came in 1997, when he won two stages in the Route du Sud and another stage and the overall at the Tour de l’Ain. He was later awarded victory in the 1998 Critérium International after the race winner failed doping tests.
Julich travels Tuesday to the United States where he will race at the Tour of Georgia later on this month. Then he retreats to Reno, Nevada, for high-altitude training and what he hopes will be a spot on Team CSC’s Tour de France squad.
“Anything that happens at the Tour of Georgia would just be icing on the cake,” Julich said. “This win’s enough for me right now.”
Voigt lights it up on a rainy morning
In the morning stage, snow and wind prompted race officials to eliminate the Cat. 3 Alto de Zuarrarrate at 7km and the race was reduced from 88km to 72km. Alex Zülle (Phonak) and Victor Hugo Peña (U.S. Postal) were among five riders not taking the start.
Voigt and Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel) attacked in the opening 5km. Etxebarria punctured at 16km and Voigt was left to his own devices. The big German, the recent winner at Critérium International, had been on the attack all week.
“I’ve been trying all week, so something finally had to happen. Sometimes you just have to bash your head against the wall until it breaks,” said Voigt. “I didn’t have much pressure here at this race except to help Bobby (Julich) and Ivan (Basso). But I wanted to do something because I had good form.”
The rain and cold played into his hands. At 32km, Voigt held a 45-second gap on Extebarria and 1:30 on the main pack, dominated by Euskaltel and Illes Balears riders.
At the Cat. 3 Alto de Olaberria, Voigt held a 32-second gap on Etxebarria, 55 seconds on Francisco Lara (Almeria-Paternina) and the main pack of about 30 riders. Voigt held his lead over the Cat. 2 Alto de Gaintza at 62km and nursed a 1:17 lead on Mayo, Etxebarria and overall leader Menchov over the short but very steep Cat. 3 Alto de Lazkaomendi at 69km. Fans lined the course four-deep as they cheered on the hard-working riders.
Menchov followed Etxebarria and Mayo without too much difficulty to hold his lead going into the afternoon time trial stage.
Julich, Leipheimer and Landis were part of a 10-man chase group that came in 16 seconds behind Menchov and Etxebarria at 1:07 back. Hamilton, last year’s runner-up, came through 18th at 1:23 back.
Results from the Tour of the Basque country following the fifth and final (two-part) stage
Final stage (first half)
1. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, 73km in 1:53:12
2. David Etxebarria (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at at 0:51
3. Denis Menchov (Rus), Illes Balears, same time
4. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:53
5. Danilo di Luca (I), Saeco, at 1:07
6. Mathias Kessler (G), T-Mobile, s.t.
7. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, s.t.
8. Jorge Ferrio (Sp), Costa Almeria, s.t.
9. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, s.t.
10. Damiano Cunego (I), Saeco, s.t.
Final stage (second half-individual time trial)
1. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, 8.5km in 11:57
2. Tyler Hamilton (USA), Phonak, at 0:01
3. Michael Rogers (AUS), Quick Step-Davitamon, at 0:05
4. Denis Menchov (Rus), Illes Balears, at 0:07
5. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, at 0:12
6. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:14
7. Kurt Asle Arvesen (Nor), CSC, at 0:16
8. David Etxebarria (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:16
9. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Kelme, at 0:17
10. Juan Manuel Garate (Sp), Lampre, at 0:19
1. Denis Menchov (Rus), Illes Baleares, 19:25:46
2. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:21
3. David Etxebarria (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:22
4. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, at 0:30
5. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, at 0:34
6. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Kelme, at 0:39
7. Floyd Landis (USA), U.S. Postal, at 0:43
8. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:47
9. Koldo Gil (Sp), Liberty Segurtos, at 0:49
10. Jorge Ferrio (Sp), Costa Almeria, at 1:02
11. Aitor Osa (Sp), Illes Balears, s.t.
12. Danilo di Luca (I), Saeco, at 1:03
13. Juan Manuel Garate (Sp), Lampre, at 1:05
14. Tyler Hamilton (USA), Phonak, at 1:09
15. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, at 1:17