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Having attacked on the final descent, Luis Leon Sanchez beat Navarro in a two-rider sprint on the first stage of the final stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco; Gerrans won the sprint for third in the same time as the Astana rider

Photo: Sirotti










04.04.2016 @ 17:51 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) again proved that he is at back at his former level when he claimed his second victory of the year in trademark fashion on the first stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The Spaniard attacked on the final descent and caught lone leader Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) whom he beat in a two-rider sprint. A frustrated Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) won the sprint for third in the same time as the stage winner.


It has been a few testing years for Luis Leon Sanchez who has gone from being a prolific winner to being a domestique at Astana. However, things seem to have been changed for the 2016 season as the Spaniard has looked like his former self.


Sanchez proved his good form by taking second overall at the Volta a la Valenciana and he went on to take an impressive stage win in a mountain stage at the Volta ao Algarve. Since then he has again disappeared from the radar after a poor showing at Paris-Nice but today he confirmed that he is again the winner that he once was by taking his first WorldTour win since 2012 on the first stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.


The hilly stage ended with an 8km descent to the finish and it always made Sanchez one to watch. The Spaniard has made it a bit of a habit to attack in such finales and that’s what he did with great success as he bridged across to Daniel Navarro whom he beat in a two-rider sprint after the peloton had missed out by just a few metres.


Sanchez win had capped off a fantastic stage by Astana who had kicked into action at the bottom of the hardest climb, the Alto de Ixua, with 33km to go. At this point, Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural) and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) were dangling just 20 seconds ahead of the peloton which had been controlled by Tinkoff and Orica-GreenEDGE all day.


Amets Txurruka and Christian Meier set the pace on the lower slopes for the Australian team which was riding for Simon Gerrans. They didn’t respond when Dario Cataldo (Astana) took off and the Italian swiftly bridged the 20-second gap to the leaders before distancing Lastra. While the Spaniard was swallowed up, Edet did his best to hang on but he also had to surrender.


In the peloton, Txurruka came under pressure when the attacks started to fly. Angel Madrazo (Caja Rural) and Simone Petilli (Lampre-Merida) were the first to try and they were quickly joined by Sebastian Henao (Sky), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and Carlos Verona (Etixx-QuickStep). They passed Edet but Txurruka was doing a great job to prevent them from getting much of an advantage.


Madrazo tried repeatedly to get clear but it was impossible to get rid of Txurruka who made the peloton explode. When the Caja Rural rider finally gave up, it was Davide Villella (Cannondale) who gave it a try and unlike Madrazo, he was allowed to go clear.


Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) and Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r) were next to try and they were quickly joined by Wilco Kelderman (LottoNL-Jumbo). The trio caught Villella but still found themselves 25 seconds behind Cataldo.


Michael Albasini took over the pace-setting for Orica-GreenEDGE and he slowly approached the chasers. This allowed Laurens De Plus (Etixx-QuickStep), Sanchez and a Giant-Alpecin rider to bridge the across.


Cataldo had a 20-second advantage over the chasers as he reached the summit where the peloton had almost caught the chase group. Villella accelerated to take second and crested the summit with a small advantage over the rest of the chasers who were led to the top by De Plus, Mate, Montaguti and Kelderman. Surprisingly, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) accelerated over the top but Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was glued to his wheel.


Contador, Quintana and Fabio Aru (Astana) reached the chase group on the descent but they had the rest of the peloton in tow. Villella was also brought back and so Cataldo was the only escapee as they reached the bottom of the descent where he had an advantage of 20 seconds.


The pace briefly went down and so the gap went out to 35 seconds with 20km to go. Cannondale started to chase in a group that gradually swelled to more than 50 riders.


Cataldo won the final intermediate sprint while the fight for position intensified in the peloton. David Lopez hit the front for Sky but it was Movistar that won the battle as Visconti led Quintana to the front.


Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal) attacked right from the bottom of the final climb and he was joined by Philip Deignan (Sky) and Pierre Rolland (Cannondale). Sergey Chernetskii (Kausha) bridged across while Trek started to chase, working for Fabio Felline.


Orica-GreeEDGE realized the danger and when Adam Yates started to chase, the Rolland group was swallowed up. He had reduced the gap to 15 seconds with 11km to go and even though he dug deep, Cataldo started to lose ground. His advantage had been halved when he entered the final 10km.


When the catch was nearly made, Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) attacked and he was joined by Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) who easily dropped the Dutchman. Further back, things heated up when Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) took off and that move was countered by Contador. The Spaniard sprinted past Navarro and as he reached the top, a 10-rider group had gone clear, with Daniel Moreno, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Sergio Henao, Daniel Martin and Yates among the riders to have made the selection.


Navarro attacked immediately after the top and quickly got an advantage while a regrouping took place further back. Pinot led the chase on the descent, keeping Navarro within sight.


Sanchez attacked and easily rejoined Navarro with 5km to go. The pair took lots of risks on the descent, with Navarro almost going down and worked well together to maintain a small advantage. Further back, Contador even tried to attack but when Sergio Henao (Sky) had shut it down and Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) had tried to counter, the group almost came to a standstill.


Roman Kreuziger started to chase for Tinkoff before Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data) tried a move. Pinot shut it down and instead Katusha started to chase, leading the peloton under the flamme rouge.


Sanchez made a bit of a gamble as he forced Navarro to stay on the front but with 500m to go, he had to take over. Forced to launch a long sprint, the Astana rider was nearly passed by Navarro but he narrowly held his compatriot off to take the victory. Further back, Simon Gerrans launched a long sprint and easily held off Fabio Felline (Trek) but he missed just a few metres in the end, crossing the line in the same time as Sanchez and Navarro.


There are no bonus seconds in the race and so Sanchez takes the line with the same time as a big group of riders. He now faces the hardest test of the entire race on stage 2 which offers the first summit finish of the race. After a lumpy day with three smaller climbs, the stage will come to a brutal conclusion on a real wall, the Alto de Garrastatxu which averages an impressive 11.67% over 2.7km. It’s a true Basque climb with extreme gradients that will have a big impact on determining the winner of the race.

A hilly opener                                                                                                      

The 56th edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco kicked off with a 144km stage that brought the riders from Etxebarria to Markina-Xemein. There were a total of 8 categorized climbs spread throughout the stage, with the hardest challenge being the category 1 Alto de Ixura coming just 25.9km from the finish. The final climb was the easier Alto de San Miguel whose summit was located with just 8.3km to go and from there it was a downhill run to the line


The race could not have started worse for Movistar and Nairo Quintana as stomach problems prevented the Izagirre brothers Gorka and Ion who was third in 2015 and has just won the GP Miguel Indurain, from taking the start. The rest of the field headed out for their neutral ride under torrential rain.


Four riders get clear

The stage started very aggressively, and there were lots of attacks before today's break was established. In the aggressive opening phase, Carlos Verona (Etixx-QuickStep) won the first KOM sprint ahead of Jan Bakelants (Ag2r) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal).


 When the elastic snapped, it was Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep), Marcel Wyss (IAM), Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural) and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) who got clear. After 20km of racing, they had an advantage of 1.04, and it quickly grew to 2.27, while the field took a short breather. Edet beat Wyss and Brambilla in the second KOM sprint.


Tinkoff take control

However, the peloton had no intention of letting the situation get out of control and after 31km of racing, the gap had already dropped to a modest 2 minutes. The situation was unchanged for a while as they gap was still only 1.57 at the 52km mark.


Tinkoff took control in the peloton to keep Alberto Contador’s GC options alive and they rode surprisingly fast. With 85km to go, the gap had already dropped to 1.15 and it was only a minute when Lastra won the third KOM sprint ahead of Edet and Wyss. At this point, Brambilla had dropped back to the peloton and it was Sergio Paulinho (Tinkoff) who led the peloton to the top.


Orica-GreenEDGE start to chase

On the fourth climb, Orica-GreenEDGE came to the fore to lend Tinkoff a hand and it was Paulinho, Evgeny Petrov (Tinkoff), Christian Meier and Amets Txurruka (Orica-GreenEDGE) who combined forces to keep the gap between 1.00 and 1.30. Lastra again beat Edet and Wyss in the next KOM sprint while Txurruka led the peloton to the top 1.25 later.


The breakaway headed to the finish where Edet won the first intermediate sprint ahead of Wyss and Lastraand with the relatively small gap, there was no stress in the peloton. However, things changed when they hit the next climb where the fight for position started. The increased pace meant that the gap had dropped to a minute when Lastra beat Edet in the KOM sprint. Meanwhile, Paulinho who has just returned from injury, ended a day of hard work as he was distanced at the top of the climb.


Edet wins KOM sprint

Rain started to fall again and this made the peloton more nervous as they went down the descent and all the big teams had positioned themselves near the front when they hit the sixth climb. Paulinho returned to the peloton and set the pace on the lower slopes, keeping the gap at 1 minute.


Wyss decided to up the pace and Lastra had to dig extremely deep to stay with his companions. The faster pace meant that the break managed to push out their advantage to 1.20. He managed to keep up but had no response when Edet attacked near the top to win the KOM sprint, with Lastra crossing the line in second. Further back, Paulinho had again swung off and it was Meier, Txurruka and Petrov who led the peloton to the top, 1.20 behind the leaders.


Wyss sits up

The gap had dropped to a minute when they contested the second sprint at the finish where Edet again took maximum points. Wyss had already been distanced and it was Txurruka who was third across the line. Moments later, Edet attacked but Lastra could follow, ending the cooperation in the break. Surprisingly, Wyss stopped completely and he stepped off the bike to discuss with his sports director in what was a very strange situation.


A crash split the field as Kiel Reijnen, Haimar Zubeldia (Trek), Christophe Riblon and Blel Kadri (Ag2r) wre among the riders to go down. They managed to rejoin the peloton after a hard chase but it had cost some energy as the fight for position for the key climb of Alto de Ixua had really started. Petrov ended his day and it was Txurruka and Meier who led the peloton onto the climb where the Astana offensive started.



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