Vaugrenard surprises at Algarve opener

Benoit Vaugrenard (FDJeux) surprised the sprinters with a well-timed late-stage attack to win Wednesday’s hilly opening stage at the 36th Volta a Algarve.

Benoit Vaugrenard (FDJeux) surprised the sprinters with a well-timed late-stage attack to win Wednesday’s hilly opening stage at the 36th Volta a Algarve.

With a peloton overflowing with hungry sprinters keen to snag an early season win, it was the give-all attack with 800 meters to go that delivered Vaugrenard the victory and the race leader’s jersey, too. Joan Horrach (Katusha) came through second at 3 seconds back and André Greipel (HTC-Columbia) led the pack across the line at 5 seconds back.

Vaugrenard can thank defending Algarve champ Alberto Contador (Astana), who just couldn’t help himself in the final kilometer in what is the Tour de France champ’s season debut.

“Contador attacked with about a kilometer to go on the second to last little hill and everyone chased him down. After the pack caught him, there was a little pause in the bunch as we came through a round-about, and that’s when I attacked,” Vaugrenard said. “Horrach was ahead of me and I went full-gas to pass him and I knew with 200 meters to go that I would win.”

A winner here last year, Contador is racing for the first time since he won last year’s Tour and perhaps just couldn’t help himself as the pack roared into Albufeira at the end of the 157.5km stage that tackled some of the rolling hills across Portugal’s dazzling Algarve coast.

An early stage, four-man breakaway that featured three Portuguese riders and a Belgian was duly reeled in thanks in large part to work from HTC-Columbia, working to set up their top man, Greipel.

The final kilometer featured two rolling hills; not quite Alpe d’Huez, but steep enough for Contador to stick his nose in the wind.

“This is a good race to make a test of my fitness,” Contador said before the start. “I haven’t raced in a long time, so I want to see how my training has been going.”

The sprinter teams were all over Contador’s move, but when it all came back together, Horrach and Vaugrenard counter-attacked with about 800 meters to go. Horrach held a small gap, but the Frenchman powered through a tailwind to roar past him with 200 meters to go to snag FDJeux’s fourth victory inside a week.

“It’s been a great start of the season for our team, we hope to continue like this,” Vaugrenard said. “It will be difficult to try to win the overall. I was here last year and I saw how hard the climb is in Friday’s stage and then there’s the final time trial on Sunday. Against riders like Contador, it will be too much for me. The goal was to win a stage, so I am already content.”

The five-day Algarve tour saw scores of riders making their European racing debut. Along with Contador, riders such as Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions), Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) were racing for the first time.

The field also includes Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), Tejay Van Garderen and Craig Lewis (HTC-Columbia) and Ted King (Cervélo TestTeam), who’s already raced in France earlier this month.

Greipel and Co. will have their work cut out for them if they want another shot at a sprint in Thursday’s 207.5km second stage from Sagres to Lagos. The stage is riddled with short, but steep climbs, including a sharp rise in the closing 3km. Perfect for Contador to test his legs again.