By Andrew Hood
Spanish rider Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Saunier Duval) uncorked a vicious sprint with 250 meters to the line in Saturday’s Clasica San Sebastián to surprise pre-race favorite Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) for the biggest win of his career.
Martin Perdiguero was part of a seven-man break that cleared the always-decisive Category 1 climb up Alto de Jaizkibel with 31.5km to go in the sweltering 227km race across the verdant hills of northern Spain’s Basque Country.
“I sprinted at 250 meters, it wasn’t too far,” said Martin Perdiguero, the first Spanish winner since 1990. “I was confident I could hold the distance.”
The Clasica, the seventh stop in the 10-round World Cup series, was hyped as a showdown between Italian superstars Bettini and World Cup leader Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), who both delivered on their end of the deal to fight for the spoils. Rebellin finished third to keep his hold on the overall World Cup lead by 44 points and admitted his only intention on the day was marking his Italian adversary.
“Bettini was the No. 1 rival for the World Cup, and he’s always very strong in Clasica,” said Rebellin, winner this year of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold Race. “I didn’t feel so strong in the sprint, the others were good, but the most important thing for me was to be with Bettini.”
Bettini, a winner here last year ahead of Ivan Basso (CSC), drove hard up the Jaizkibel to trim the lead group. Many of the other pre-name favorites couldn’t follow, including Oscar Freire and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Igor Astarloa (Lampre), Alejandro Valverde (Kelme) and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile).
The two-time defending World Cup champion is putting heavy pressure on Rebellin’s grip on the white leader’s jersey, but has failed to win the past two weekends. Last week at the HEW Cyclassics, Bettini was second to winner Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis).
“I was marking Rebellin for the sprint and Perdiguero surprised me from the back,” said Bettini, who finished second by a wheel. “I thought he wasn’t going to make it, but no, he kept on going. I am so angry, because I should have won, more so than at Hamburg. Last week I was beaten by a stronger guy, but here I was the strongest.”
In 2003, Bettini won both HEW Cyclassics and the Clasica to sweep to a second World Cup title. This year, he’s finished second the past two weekends and has been skunked so far this season for World Cup victories.
Early in the race, American Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) was part of a 26-rider breakaway that detached themselves 38km into the race. Leipheimer and Ruben Plaza (Kelme) dropped the remainder of the break at 173km, but the Montana native was reeled in about midway up the 8km Jaizkibel climb.
“I was just covering stuff in the beginning because we had three guys that are high in the standings,” said Leipheimer, who finished 66th at 9:33 back. “A big group got away and I didn’t know how I’d do after the Tour. It was kind of a bummer because I think for sure I could have made it into the first group. When they passed me, I wasn’t that impressed with the speed, but by the time they got to me they had already done the big effort.”
Bettini was leading the charge, with T-Mobile Sergeui Ivanov and Ullrich hot on his tail. Valverde was forced to chase back on after flatting just as the main bunch was upping the pace on the lower flanks.
The hot, humid weather was taking its toll and the peloton was quickly fractured under the heavy pace. Leipheimer was reeled in on a wide, sweeping left turn with Bettini still leading the pace.
George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service-Berry Floor), who was using the Spanish race as preparation for next weekend’s Olympic road race, was dropped on the towering mountain high above the Atlantic Ocean.
“I wasn’t feeling so good, it was my first race since the Tour, just wanted to get some miles in for next weekend and hopefully I’ll be good for Athens,” said Hincapie, who finished 56th at 5:24 back. “Today was good to get the distance in and I knew that I wouldn’t be good at the end, having not raced since the Tour, so the main thing was to get some good miles in and hopefully I’ll be fully recovered and be ready to go.”
Marcos Serrano (Liberty Seguros) was setting a strong pace up the middle section of the climb to trim the lead group down to about 10 riders. Basso was there along with Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner) and Alberto Martinez (Relax Bodysol) while Astarloa, Ullrich, Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval) and Freire chased.
Totschnig led the group over the Jaizkibel and the selection was made that would decide the race. Also there were Rebellin, Bettini, Serrano, Basso, Perdiguero and Martinez. Tino Zaballa (Saunier Duval) and David Herrero (Paternina) tried to cross over from the first chase group, but the seven would drive it home to the “Boulevard” in downtown San Sebastián.
On the descent, Martinez attacked the group and opened a small gap with 20km to go. Meanwhile, Ullrich punctured and saw his chances of catching on deflate with his tire. Basso punctured with about 10km to go and burned a lot of matches working hard to chase back on.
Gerolsteiner used its advantage to send Totschnig on the attack twice in the final two kilometers, each time checked by Bettini and Basso. With 1km to go, Basso took the lead position but had nothing left in the tank to challenge for the sprint and coasted across the line sixth at six seconds back.
With Bettini and Rebellin eyeing each other, Martin Perdiguero took his chance. The pocket rocket from Madrid wasn’t about to be intimidated by the high-wattage names, but his win was a surprise to everyone except him.
“I didn’t see Bettini and Rebellin. I saw Quick Step and Gerolsteiner, I wasn’t thinking about if they’re famous or big men,” said Perdiguero, a winner of eight races this year, including the overall at the Volta a Cataluyna in June. “I think about winning the race, it doesn’t matter against who it is. It’s a question of strength. After so many kilometers, it’s who has the best legs wins.”
Clasica San Sebastián, World Cup round No. 7, 227km
1. Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Spa), Saunier Duval, 5:18:35 (42.752kph)
2. Paolo Bettini (Ita), Quick Step
3. Davide Rebellin (Ita), Gerolsteiner
4. Marcos Serrano (Spa), Liberty Seguros
5. Alberto Martinez (Spa), Relax Bodysol – all same time
World Cup standings after seven rounds
1. Rebellin, 282 points
2. Bettini, 238
3. Oscar Freire (Spa), Rabobank, 182
4. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis, 150
5. Michael Boogerd (Ned), Rabobank, 146