By Andrew Hood
Alejandro Valverde has been uncharacteristically quiet so far this season, winning just one stage at the Vuelta a Murcia back in March.
Instead, the usually prolific Illes Balears rider has been diligently preparing for the Ardennes classics and the Tour de France, his two major goals for the first half of the 2006 season.
Monday’s opening stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco presented a nice testing ground for both challenges.
With a bumpy 130km four-climb stage to open hostilities in the six-day race across northern Spain’s Basque Country, including the Cat. 1 Alto de Jaizkibel – an old friend from August’s annual Clásica San Sebastián – Valverde had a chance to measure his legs against a world-class field and a difficult course.
“Mission accomplished,” Valverde beamed after nipping three-time world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank) in a photo-finish. “Now we have the jersey. We’ll try to defend it until the final time trial, which should decide everything.”
The win gave Valverde the race leader’s jersey, without time bonuses, against 48 other riders who finished in the lead group over the daunting Jaizkibel – a spectacularly jagged climb towering over the Bay of Biscayne.
Rabobank and Illes Balears collaborated to reel in the late-attacking José Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval), Aitor Osa (Liberty Seguros) and Leonardo Bertagnolli (Cofidis) on the quick descent off the Jaizkibel.
From there, it was a fast 12km run to the flat finish into Irún, a bustling border town full of French tourists loading up on cheap Spanish gasoline, cigarettes and liquor.
For those who detoured to the finish line, they saw something that’s never been done before: Valverde beating Freire in a head-to-head sprint. Both riders stabbed their bikes across the line in a photo-finish. A centimeter decided the winner.
“The sprint was furious right to the end. Freire is a super champion. To beat him – even by a little bit – gives me a lot of motivation,” Valverde said. “Neither of us was sure who won. We both said, ‘I don’t know if you won or me.’ Perdi (Miguel Martin Perdiguero) went first. I grabbed his wheel and had just the right gear to get around.”
Freire – speaking to Spanish radio before official results established the winner – said if he won or lost, he was satisfied with the result. To be able to get over the Jaizkibel with such an elite group and have enough in the tank to fight for the victory was encouraging.
“Even if I didn’t win, I know the form is there to try another day,” said Freire, who decided to skip the cobblestoned classics and race in Spain. “There will be more opportunities.”
Taking third was Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), coming into form just in time for the Ardennes where he won the rare treble in 2004. Sixth was Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto), who tried a stab on the upper approaches of the Jaizkibel and had a nice finish in Irún.
Morning rain turned to fabulous spring sun to welcome the start of the 46th Basque tour. Mild weather is expected to turn cold and dreary come Wednesday, so riders were keen to make the most of the sunny day.
Early in the stage, a big group of 16 riders including Jens Voigt (CSC), a winner of a stage in the past two editions, tried to get away. Illes Balears quickly put the breaks on that move at 18km before three riders – Pierrick Fedrigo (Bougues Telecom), Unai Etxbarria (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Alessandro Vanoti (Milram) – snuck away at 23km.
The threesome held sway over the day’s first three rated climbs, with Etxebarria taking the climber’s jersey despite tying Vanoti in points because he was first over the day’s most difficult climb, the Cat. 1 Alto de Erlaitz at 87km.
The trio was reeled in on the Jaizkibel and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) tried to slip away with a dangerous downhill attack, but his aggression was checked with 4km to go to set up the sprint.
Of the 175 starters, only 49 realistically now have hopes for overall victory. Major names missing the move were Joseba Beloki (Liberty Seguros), in his first race of the season, 2004 winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank), 2005 Vuelta a España runner-up Carlos Sastre (CSC) and José Luis Rubiera (Discovery Channel) – all finishing 2:39 behind the winner.
Valverde was cautiously optimistic about his chances to keep the leader’s jersey until Saturday’s decisive 24km time trial. Tuesday’s complicated 12-climb, 155km second stage from Irún to Segura could prove troublesome to control if a group of motivated riders got away.
“I think if we can keep the jersey tomorrow, then I can keep it until the final time trial,” Valverde said. “I don’t know if I can win. There were a lot of people showing good strength on both the Erlaitz and Jaizkibel climbs. Today the legs responded. Today and tomorrow are the key days of the race.”
Like Valverde, it was mission accomplished. Let’s see what he says tomorrow.