By Andrew Hood
Euskaltel-Euskadi is more than a professional team for the cycling-crazed Basques. The team’s distinctive orange jerseys are part of the cultural landscape of the hilly region of northern Spain and the Tour of the Basque Country is their home race.
Samuel Sanchez gave local fans something to cheer about in the Vuelta al País Vasco, ending the team’s early season winless streak with a daring attack with 7km to go in Tuesday’s 155km second stage to give the team its first win of the 2006 season and snatch the leader’s jersey.
“The only thing we haven’t done this year was win,” Sanchez said. “Today we did it at home in good style, with cold blood, and in the end it was just what we needed.”
The potentially explosive 155km, 12-climb stage from Irún to Segura lived up to its promise to put Alejandro Valverde’s hold on the leader’s jersey in peril.
An early breakaway was reeled in with about 30km to go, letting loose a series of searing attacks in the day’s final three climbs that trimmed the list of would-be candidates for victories down to 17.
Sanchez bridged out to the hard-charging trio of Leonardo Bertagnolli (Cofidis) and Aitor Osa and Alberto Contador (both Liberty Seguros) on the day’s final punch up the Cat. 2 Alto de Minas with 7km to go.
They nursed a slender 17-second lead over the summit when Sanchez attacked on the descent and only Contador could follow. The desperately chasing peloton twice looked to have the duo in check, but their tenacity paid off.
Contador jumped with 400 meters to go on a rising finish and looked to have the best of Sanchez, but the 28-year-old swept past his shoulder to grab fifth and biggest win of his seven-year professional career.
“The team worked perfectly today and the win compensates for all our hard work this season,” said Sanchez. “I couldn’t imagine I would win today, but all spring I’ve been strong, so I think I deserve it.”
It was the first win of the year for Euskaltel-Euskadi, which had the dubious honor of being the only one of 20 ProTour teams not to have won so far in the 2006 season.
Not over yet
Valverde led the much-reduced peloton across the line in third at just two seconds back. While he forfeited the leader’s jersey, “Balaverde” said the fight’s not over yet.
“Well, I was third, and like I said yesterday, I can’t win every day,” said Valverde, a winner of Monday’s opener in a photo finish. “We couldn’t quite catch them, but two seconds isn’t that much time. In the end, I think everything worked out okay.”
Only 15 riders finished in the lead group at two seconds back while the next major group, which included the likes of Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) and Evgeni Petrov (Lampre), finished at 1:11 back. Other favorites, such as Tirreno-Adriatico winner Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) and last year’s winner Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), finished more than 11 minutes back.
Big names with a strong time trial still in the hunt include Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Jose Azevedo (Discovery Channel) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner).
With Saturday’s 24km individual time trial looming and the two hardest days of the race in the history books, most aren’t expecting major shakeups in the GC until the weekend.
“We knew it was going to be hard and everything got broken up today,” Valverde said. “Tomorrow, they have to take control of the stage and we can ride on the wheel more tranquil. It’s going to be very interesting.”
Horner’s finish-line stand
Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) couldn’t believe his bad luck. The plucky American made the selection of the elite group up the final climb when he punctured with about 7km to go. He knew that was no-man’s land despite a fast wheel change.
When he rolled up to the finish line, he stopped just short of the tape and just idled there before slipping across 50th at 3:28 back.
“I got the flat, so there goes the GC. I knew there was no way I was chasing back, so that’s why I wanted to lose as much time as possible,” Horner said. “I just sat there two minutes. Maybe that’s enough time that they’ll let me go in a break and not worry about me.”
Horner was poised for a solid result in the demanding Pais Vasco race. In Monday’s opener, he finished a solid sixth against the likes of three-time world champion Oscar Freire and Valverde.
“The legs aren’t super, but they are good enough to be in that lead group,” Horner lamented. “I came here to win something. So the GC’s gone, so maybe I can get a stage.”
Early move to chase KoM
Six riders extracted themselves at 35km, among them Francesco Bellotti (Credit Agricole), Yoann Le Boulanger (Bouygues Telecom), Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Jose Luis Arrieta and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r) and Israel Nuñez (Kaiku).
The leaders opened up more than three minutes’ gap at 55km, but Illes Balears put men on the front to limit the damage. Dupont, Isasi, Arrieta and Nuñez duked it out for points over the string of climbs to chase the best climber’s jersey.
Dupont topped out first over four of the day’s rated climbs and nudged ahead of Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel) to grab the climber’s prize. Valverde kept the points jersey and French champion Pierrrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) kept the hot sprints jersey.
No one could believe the weather. For the second day in a row, sunny skies and warm temperatures welcomed the peloton like a cozy Basque taberna.
That might not seem like a rarity in Spain, but in the Basque Country – notorious for its unpredictable weather – two days of sun in April was nothing short of a miracle.
“It never lasts like this in Basque Country,” said Team CSC’s Carlos Sastre. “Don’t worry. It will rain. And if we’re not lucky, snow.”
Sastre’s sixth sense seemed inline with forecasters, which called for rain and much cooler temperatures to blow in off the north Atlantic ahead of this weekend.
The 46th Basque tour continues Wednesday with the 170km third stage from Segura to Lerin. The course features six climbs, with the peloton climbing over a Cat. 2 and a Cat. 1 climb in the opening 40km.
Three punchy Cat. 3s mark the final half of the course before the short but steep climbing finish into Lerin. The final 700 meters features ramps as steep as 10.5 percent.