By Andrew Hood
Denis Menchov, a quiet Russian on the Illes Balears team, ruined the party for the hometown heroes of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in Thursday’s decisive climbing stage in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco.
Menchov punched the accelerator with 500 meters to go up the short but steep Category 1 Alto Azpiroz climb near the finish of the 182km fourth stage to quickly drop David Etxebarria (Euskaltel).
The Russian didn’t look back as he crested the summit and hammered the final 3km to the finish line to score his second stage win this season and seize the overall lead. Menchov, the best young rider of the 2003 Tour de France, came through with fists pumping the air, 13 seconds ahead of the hard-charging group of favorites, who were left wondering if they just lost the race.
“I don’t know if 13 seconds will be enough to win,” said Menchov, looking ahead to Friday’s two-stage finale, which includes a short but climb-riddled 88km road stage in the morning and an 8.5km individual time trial in the afternoon. “Right now I’m happy just to win this stage.”
The rejuvenated Bobby Julich (CSC) was the top American, coming though sixth at 13 seconds back. U.S. Postal’s Floyd Landis, who attacked early to open a gap on the lower flanks of the climb, was 12th and Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) 13th, also at 13 seconds back. Tyler Hamilton (Phonak), last year’s runner-up, lost contact with the lead group over the final punch to the summit and came through 18th at 26 seconds back.
“I got really cold on the long descent before the final climb,” said Hamilton, now 18th overall at 34 seconds back. “I felt strong today, but I was kind of frozen there at the final climb. The climb was only three kilometers. I like climbs four times that long. I’m not going to lie; I’m disappointed that I couldn’t hold on with the lead group the last 500 meters. But like I said, this isn’t a huge objective for me this year.”
Menchov’s victory put a damper on many of the favorites in what was already a cold and rainy stage. Race leader Alejandro Valverde (Kelme) and defending champion Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) could only watch as Menchov scampered away to the win.
The Russian, who was one of 20 riders starting the day tied with Valverde, now holds a 13-second margin over 14 others. And the way he’s riding right now, said U.S. Postal’s sport director Johan Bruyneel, “I think it might be enough,”
No lack of ganas
There’s never a lack of motivation – or, in Spanish, ganas – at the Basque Country race. Huge crowds turned out to cheer the peloton as it rolled out of Vitoria under cool, cloudy skies. Like every day in the Basque tour, Euskaltel drew the biggest crowds.
Early in the stage, a group of 23 riders escaped over the Cat. 2 Alto do Iturrieta at 37km. The break didn’t get more than a minute away from the favorites over the Cat. 2 Alto de Urbasa at 62km. Landis and Victor Hugo Peña covered the move for Postal.
Coming over the Cat. Alto de Zuarrarrate at 114km, Gorka Gonzalez (Euskaltel) broke away. Coming in for the first passage through Lekunberri, Gonzalez had about 45 seconds over a chase group of nine riders and 3:55 over the peloton.
Gonzalez – who started the day in 122nd at 24:15 back – held his lead over the Cat. 3 Alto de Huitzi at 129km, down the long descent to Tolosa and the base of the Cat. 1 climb back to Lekunberri. Cold rain and wind pelted the Euskaltel rider as he nursed his lead with 47km to go. Jose Luis Arrieta (Illes Balears) and Alexandre Moos (Phonak) gave chase at 1:15 back while the peloton was about four minutes back.
Gonzalez started faded on the lower flanks of the final climb up the Cat. 1 Alto Azpiroz as Kelme moved to the front and powered the main bunch. The math was simple: The bunch was hammering along at 43 to 45 kph while the leaders could only manage 39kph. The adventure ended about 14km to go.
Menchov takes off on final climb
The peloton roared to the base of the Cat. 1 Alto Azpiroz in the green heart of Spain’s verdant Basque Country. U.S. Postal, led by Benjamin Noval, set a blistering pace of 45kph to the base of the climb with 9km to go to the finish line in rainy Lekunberri high in the Basque mountains of northern Spain.
There was some serious jostling on the lower flanks leading to the decisive final section as Rabobank, U.S. Postal, Kelme, Saeco and Euskaltel fought to keep their captains in good position.
Like many of the Basque Country climbs, Azpiroz isn’t long, just 3.3km, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in steeps, with an average grade of 8.3 percent and ramps as steep as 11.6 percent. It’s no Angliru, but severe enough to cause some sparks even on a soggy day.
Juan Miguel Mercado (Quick Step) was the first to soften up the bunch, accelerating at the base of the climb. Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom), Peter Luttenberger (Team CSC) and Landis (USPS) were quick to follow.
“I told Floyd if he felt good, he should go for it,” Bruyneel said. “Looking back, maybe he went a little too early.”
At the back of the lead group, Mayo was knocked off his bike as it appeared some riders clipped wheels and went sprawling to the ground. Up front, Landis chugged away alone, passing Luttenberger with about 2km to go to the summit.
Euskaltel organized a chase with Danilo Di Luca (Saeco) and Ivan Basso (CSC) in tow. Etxebarria (Euskaltel) caught Landis, with Menchov on his wheel. Menchov and Etxebarria plowed through huge crowds as they hit the steepest part of the climb. Then the Russian accelerated, tongue hanging out, to open a gap on Etxebarria and clear the summit with a small margin.
“I knew Etxebarria would be strong and I felt good. When I noticed the pace slowing down a little bit, I attacked hard because I knew the final was flat into the finish,” said Menchov.
It was a largely flat run into Lekunberri, but Menchov held a 13-second gap on Etxebarria and a group of 15 with 1km to go. The chasers couldn’t narrow the gap to the Russian, who came through fists pumping in the air.
1. Denis Menchov (Rus), iBanesto, 182km in 4:35:48
2. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel, at 0:14
3. Danielo Di Luca (I), Saeco, same time
4. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Kelme, s.t.
5. Jorge Ferrio (Sp), Costa Almeria , s.t.
6. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, s.t.
7. Juan Manuel Garate (Sp), Lampre, s.t.
8. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
9. Koldo Gil Perez (Sp), Liberty Seguros, s.t.
10. Manuel Beltran (Sp), U.S. Postal, s.t.
1. Denis Menchov (Rus), Illes Balears, 17:19:39
2. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Kelme, at 0:13
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Saeco, same time
4. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel, s.t.
5. Jorge Ferrio (Sp), Costa Almeria, s.t.
6. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
7. Aitor Osa (Sp), Illes Balears, s.t.
8. David Extebarria (Sp), Euskaltel, s.t.
9. Manuel Beltran (Sp), U.S. Postal, s.t.
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Rabobank, s.t.