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By Andrew Hood
Another stage at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and another bunch sprint?
Yes, and another photo finish in a race in what’s usually a shoot-out between the mountain goats. This time it was Kelme’s Alejandro Valverde who had the thicker tires to snatch the win away from Gerolsteiner’s Davide Rebellin in Wednesday’s 191km stage from Plentzia to Vitoria.
Gerolsteiner’s Fabian Wegmann was already pumping his arm in celebration, thinking that Rebellin had won when Valverde came from six riders back to score his second win this season.
“We went all day thinking it would come down to a sprint, so I was staying hidden in the bunch to save my legs,” Valverde said. “We have some riders here who are sick and are not feeling great, so it’s a nice souvenir to win this stage.”
The longest stage of the Basque Country tour still couldn’t break up the race. For the third day in a row the group arrived to the finish for a bunch sprint, despite three attacks from Euskaltel on the day’s final climb just 12km from the finish in Vitoria.
“We did a lot of work today, but it was all for nothing,” said Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez, who was reeled in with 7km to go. “ONCE brought me back to control things into the finish line. Cycling’s like that.”
Four riders – Eladio Jimenez (iBanesto.com), Gonzalo Bayarri (Phonak), Luis Pasamontes (Relax) and Dermont Nally (Paternina) — attacked just 16km into the stage. When the leading quartet built up a lead of 14 minutes on the main bunch going up the day’s first climb, the Category 2 Alto de la Barrerilla at 81km, Fassa Bortolo moved to the front with seven riders to stem the bleeding.
Several riders abandoned, including 2002 Vuelta a Espana champion Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo) with stomach problems, Serge Baguet (Lotto-Domo), Joaquin Rodriguez (ONCE), Ruggero Borghi (Mercatone Uno) and Alexis Rodriguez (Kelme).
The quartet held a gap over the day’s second climb, the Category 3 Alto de Zaldiaran at 136km, but with 30km to go, the lead was down to three minutes as Euskaltel increased the chase. Bayarri – third overall last year — went away solo, but his time at the front was numbered.
CSC’s Tyler Hamilton attacked midway up the day’s final obstacle, the Category 3 Alto de Zaldiaran with 12km to go. Just as he was brought back, Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo shot off the front. After Fassa Bortolo checked the move, David Extebarria attacked. The peloton was stuck on replay as Telekom brought him back, Samuel Sanchez shot clear over the summit with a small gap.
ONCE checked Sanchez’ move with 6km to go and drove it home to try to protect Vicioso’s lead. Valverde moved into the overall lead based on points.
The 43rd Vuelta al Pais Vasco continues Thursday with the 171-km, five-climb fourth stage. The stage opens flat as it heads northeast out of Vitoria and climbs the Category 2 Alto Zuarrarrate at 79km, followed by the Category 3 Alto de Usategieta at 104km quickly followed by the first of two climbs up the Category 2 Alto de Saldias at 119km. The final climb up Saldias comes with 18km left to go with a fast downhill finish into Doneztebe.
Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Stage 3, Plentzia to Vitoria
1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp-Kelme), 191km in 4 hours, 50 minutes, 15 seconds, 38.243 kph
2. David Rebellin (I-Gerolsteiner)
3. Fabian Wegmann (G-Gerolsteiner)
4. Dmitri Fofonov (Kaz-Cofidis)
5. Ricardo Serrano (Sp-Labarca 2)
6. Danilo Di Luca (I-Saeco)
7. Samuel Sanchez (Sp-Euskaltel)
8. Igor Astarloa (Sp-Saeco)
9. Jon Odriozola (Sp-iBanesto.com)
10. Jorge Ferrio (Sp-Almeria) — all same time.Overall standings after three stages
1. Alejandro Valverde (Sp-Kelme) 12 hours, 12 minutes, 6 seconds, 38.683 kph
2. David Rebellin (I-Gerolsteiner)
3. Igor Astarloa (Sp-Saeco)
4. Tyler Hamilton (USA-CSC)
5. Iban Mayo (Sp-Euskaltel)
6. David Etxebarria (Sp-Euskaltel)
7. Kim Kirchen (Lux-Fassa Bortolo)
8. Bingen Fernandez (Sp-Cofidis)
9. Antonio Colom (Sp-Relax)
10. Samuel Sanchez (Sp-Euskaltel) – all same time
Armstrong pulls out of Sarthe
Four-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal) withdrew from the Circuit de la Sarthe race during Wednesday’s second stage.
The American rider, who finished 26th in Tuesday’s first stage, quit 70km from the finish line complaining of an upset stomach.
Armstrong had complained of being off-form since the weekend, but the withdrawal of the tenacious Texan surprised even his team.
U.S. Postal Johan Bruyneel said that the American had complained of “a lump in his stomach” and would be returning to his home in Gerona, eastern Spain immediately.
“At this stage of the season he can allow himself to retire. Lance is going to still prepare for Amstel Gold,” added Bruyneel.Copyright AFP2003
Leipheimer feeling strong
Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank) said Wednesday he’s feeling better at this point of the season compared to last year. Leipheimer has been quietly riding throughout the spring in such stage-races as the Tour of Murcia and Setmana Catalana. “I’m feeling good, better than I felt at this race last year,” Leipheimer said just before signing in for Wednesday’s third stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
Leipheimer’s been in Europe since January with the season’s top goal July’s Tour de France, when Leipheimer said he wants to improve on his impressive eighth-place debut last year. Leipheimer, riding in his second year with Rabobank, said he’s not experienced any lingering side-effects from emergency surgery last year for a blocked intestine.
Cioni will help at Giro
Fassa Bortolo’s Dario Cioni is among several former mountain bike pros racing at this week’s Pais Vasco. Former world champion Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and World Cup winner Cadel Evans (Telekom) are among the former dirt riders here. Olympic champion Miguel Martinez (Phonak) was scheduled to start but missed his flight out of Paris on Sunday.
Cioni rode with Mapei’s mountain bike team before joining the road team in 2001 and penned a deal with Fassa Bortolo for 2003 to help Aitor Gonzalez make a run at the Giro next month.
“I was sick at Tirreno, but there’s enough time to recover before the Giro starts,” Cioni said. “Our team has good chances for the Giro and I will be motivated to work.”
Fassa Bortolo will go to the Giro with Gonzalez and Dario Frigo sharing the team leadership. The 2002 Vuelta champion stands the best chances for victory if he can make it through the mountains with the favorites as this year’s Giro ends with a 40-km individual time trial.
Cioni says he almost never rides a mountain bike anymore. “I have one hanging on my wall,” he said.
Beloki riding home
ONCE’s Joseba Beloki will be real close to home at the end of Wednesday’s stage in Vitoria. Right across the street, to be exact. “Our hotel tonight is in front of my home. I’ll have to ask Manolo (Saiz) if I can go home and sleep in my own bed,” Beloki said before the start. Last year’s runner-up at the Tour de France and third at the Vuelta a España said he’s on schedule to gain winning form in time for July’s Tour.