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After a big attack by Henao, 12 riders arrived together for the sprint in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco queen stage and it was Rodriguez who emerged as the fastest; Henao defended the overall lead

Photo: Unipublic/Graham Watson

BAUKE MOLLEMA

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JOAQUIM RODRIGUEZ OLIVER

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KATUSHA ALPECIN

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SERGIO LUIS HENAO

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SIMON YATES

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TEAM SKY

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09.04.2015 @ 19:13 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

One day after his first win since 2013, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) confirmed that he is back to his best when he again emerged as the strongest in the traditional Vuelta al Pais Vasco queen stage on the Alto del Arrate. After a big attack by race leader Sergio Henao (Sky) and his Katusha teammate Ilnur Zakarin had been neutralized just after the top of the climb, Rodriguez beat 11 riders in the downhill sprint to make it two in a row while Henao defended his overall lead.

 

Joaquim Rodriguez had a terrible 2014 season where he seemed to crash whenever he had built his best condition for one of his big objectives. After a year of suffering, his 2015 season started in a similarly bad way as he was far from his best level in the Tour of Oman and fell ill just before his first objective at the Volta a Catalunya.

 

However, it has often been proved that it only takes one victory to get the ball rolling and it seems that Rodriguez is now back to his winning ways. One day after he broke his drought in the first GC stage at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he made it two in a row when he won the traditional queen stage to the top of the Alto del Arrate.

 

The win must have an extra significance for the Spaniard as it made up for his frustrating defeat in the same finale at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana. Back then he had arrived at the finish together with Alejandro Valverde, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador and seemed to have done everything right in the downhill sprint as he was the first rider through the famous turn 100m from the line. However, he stopped pedaling a bit too early and was piped on the line by Valverde.

 

Rodriguez had clearly learnt from the mistake and today there was no similar mistake when 12 riders arrived for the sprint at the top of the Alto del Arrate. Having been perfectly set up by his teammate Simon Spilak, he was again the first rider through the turn and he easily held off Bauke Mollema (Trek) and Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) to take the win.

 

The sprint came after an exciting battle on the famous climb where it was Orica-GreenEDGE who had taken control on the lower slopes. Daryl Impey led the Australian team onto the ascent before his teammate Pieter Weening upped the pace.

 

While riders like Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin), Vasil Kiryienka (Sky) and Bart De Clercq (Lotto Soudal) were among the early victims, Movistar made the expected surge when Benat Intxautsi hit the front. The Spaniard made the peloton explode before Darwin Atapuma (BMC) launched the first attack.

 

Movistar had clearly planned Ion Izagirre to respond to the attacks and the Basque quickly joined the Colombian before Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) brought it back together. As the group slowed down, young talent Ilnur Zakarin was the next to go and he was joined by Izagirre and Sanchez while David Lopez (Sky) tried to control the situation.

 

While Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) got distanced, Sanchez was dropped from the front trio which was 10 seconds ahead. Moments later Izagirre also had to surrender, leaving just Henao to pree on.

 

With 4.3km to go, race leader Sergio Henao made his big attack. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Spila, Michele Scarponi (Astana) and Rodriguez were quick to react but the Movistar captain suddenly sat, unable to keep up with his compatriot. Henao flew past Izagirre while a small group gathered behind.

 

Samuel Sanchez (BMC), Mollema, Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r), Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Yates, Quintana, Rodriguez, Spilak and Scarponi were the only riders left and they picked up Izagirre who started to work. When he swung off, Scarpoi made a big surge that sent Sanchez, Peraud and Majka out the back door.

 

Henao had now caught Zakarin and was riding on the front with the young Russian glued to his wheel. As they approached the summit , Izagirre went back to work and when Pinot accelerated over the top, the group made contact just after the passage of the KOM sprint with 1.7km to go, with Izagirre taking the final turn.

 

This was the signal for Spilak to kick into action and he moved to the front with his teammate Rodriguez on his wheel. Everybody was fighting for position as it was important to get through the final turn in first position.

 

Like yesterday Henao made his surge too early and when he started to fade, Rodriguez passed him. The Katusha rider sprinted all the way to the turn and managed to hold off Mollema and Yates in the battle for the stage win.

 

Henao and Quintana both finished in the same time and so those two riders and Rodriguez are still equal on time, with Henao defending the lead on a countback. He gets another chance to gain time in tomorrow’s final road stage which is probably the hardest of the race. A total of 9 categorized climbs are spread throughout the course but the race is likely to be decided inside the final 20km when the riders will tackle the brutally steep wall Alto de Aia twice from two different sides. The second passage comes just 4.2km from the finish and then a short descent leads to a 1.5km ramp to the finish whose gradient never drops below the 10% mark.

 

The queen stage

After the first GC battle, it was time for the traditional queen stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which brought the riders over 162km from Zumarraga to the well-known finish on the Alto de Arrate on the outskirts of Eibar. After a rolling first half with two categorized climbs, the riders reached the difficult second half that included not less than five ascents. The first one, the Alto de Ixua, was the hardest and was followed by three smaller climbs before the riders reached the bottom of the famous Alto de Arrate. The 7.3km climb summited just 1km from the finish and then it was the well-known technical descent to the finish.

 

After the sunny start to the race, it was an overcast but dry day when the riders took the start in Zumarraga. Three riders were non-starters as Martijn Keizer (LottoNL-Jumbo), Thierry Hupond (Giant-Alpecin) and Robert Kiserlovski (Tinkoff-Saxo) had all decided to head home.

 

A fast start

Unlike in the first three stages, the start of the race was very animated with lots of attacks and this made for some were fast racing. At the 8km mark, the first promising move was created when Oliver Zaugg (Tinkoff-Saxo), Valerio Agnoli (Astana) and Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) got clear but they only managed to get an advantage of 10 seconds before they were brought back 2km later.

 

The attacking continued and so things were still together when they hit the first climb of the Alto de Asentzio. Here Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida), Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin), Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin), Jerome Coppel (IAM) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) attacked but they were brought back before the top where Benat Intxausti (Movistar) led Danielson, Romain Hardy (Cofidis), Coppel and the rest of a splintering peloton across the line.

 

A dangerous group

Sky had now taken control of the situation but they found themselves on the defensive at the 45km mark when a 14-rider group suddenly had gone clear. At the 56km mark, Chris Anker Sørensen (Tinkoff-Saxo), Philippe Gilbert and Rohan Dennis (BMC), Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE), Coppel, Lieuwe Westra (Astana), Maxime Monfort (Lotto Soudal), Michal Golas (Etixx-QuickStep), Matteo Bono (Lampre-Merida), Danielson, Bob Jungels and Fabio Felline (Trek), Hardy and Yoann Bagot (Cofidis) were 35 seconds ahead as they started to climb the Alto de Karabieta.

 

On the steep ascent, Gorka Izagirre (Movistar) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) attacked and they were joined by Mikael Cherel (Ag2r) before they bridged the gap to the 14 leaders. At the 60km mark, the 17-rider group was still 35 seconds ahead of the peloton which was down to just 60 rides.

 

A quartet take off

However, the situation was too dangerous for Sky who managed to bring it back together on the descent and instead a new group took off. Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), Danielson, Pello Bilbao (Caja Rural) and Hardy launched the next attack and while Cheng Ji and Fredrik Ludvigsson (Giant-Alpecin) left the race, the peloton slowed down for the first time. At the 79km mark, the quartet had built an advantage of 1.30.

 

As they hit the brutally steep Alto de Ixua, Movistar had reduced the gap to 1.00. As soon as they started to climb, Hardy dropped off and when Martin made another acceleration, Bilbao also got distanced.

 

Sky take control

Danielson led Martin over the top of the climb while Bilbao followed in third. Hardy had now been caught and it was Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), David Lopez and Vasil Kiryienka who were first from the peloton.

 

At the top, the front duo had extended their advantage to 1.30 and as they went down the descent, they managed to extend it to 2.20. In the peloton, Sky had again taken control, first with Xabier Zandio and later with Kantsntsin Siutsou. Danielson beat Martin in the first sprint while Bilbao took third.

 

Movistar accelerate

As they hit the next climb, Zandio swung off and left it to Siutsou to take a short turn before Movistar again tried to make it hard. Igor Anton did the early work before Visconti again took over, bringing the summit back and cresting the summit 2.10 behind the two leaders.

 

Movistar and Sky shared the workload on the descent, with Siutsou and Visconti riding on the front before Anton managed to come back to take another turn as they hit the next climb. As Jose Herrada and Visconti accelerated, the gap started to come down and after Danielson had led Martin over the top, Herrada was first from the peloton 1.50 later.

 

Lampre-Merida up the pace

Danielson led Martin across the line in the second sprint while a bad crash brought down Angel Vicioso (Katusha) who was trying to rejoin the peloton. Meanwhile, the hit the next climb and here Lampre-Merida suddenly stepped into action.

 

Ruben Plaza took over the pace-setting before Jose Serpa made a big acceleration that sent several riders out the back door. As he had brought the gap down to 55 seconds, Rodriguez had to use a lot of energy to get back after a bike change.

 

The break is caught

Jan Polanc took over from Serpa and when he crested the summit as the first rider from the peloton, they were only 22 seconds behind Danielson and Martin who had crossed the line in that order. Gorka Izagirre started to chase for Movistar on the descent after the pace had briefly gone down.

 

Danielson was unfortunate to drop his chain but he managed to rejoin Martin. Meanwhile, Trek took over the pace-setting with Bob Jungels who traded pulls with Izagirre.

 

Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) hit the front as they reached the flat roads at the bottom before Orica-GreenEDGE took over with Michael Albasini. As Impey hit the front, they brought front duo back just as they had turned onto the final climb where the big battle unfolded.

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