Vuelta a España: Stage 4 review

Stage 4: Barakaldo to Estación de Valdezcaray, 160.6km

Five escapees – Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Kazakh national champion Assan Bazayev (Astana) made the day’s break in the 39°C heat and notched up a maximum lead of over 13 minutes. But the real action of the stage had to do with karma and crosswinds. With 30km remaining, it looked like a Vacansoleil rider hit the deck, taking a bunch of Liquigas and Movistar riders down including Alejandro Valverde, the red jersey. Just before that happened, Sky started upping the pace on the front to split the peloton in the strong crosswinds.

The peloton was split into five groups – with Valverde in the fifth group – when BMC and Katusha moved to the front of the lead group and upped the pace some more. In fact, it was so obvious that they were working to distance Valverde that the Movistar team car came up to the front to talk to Philippe Gilbert [!! – Ed] – presumably to explain the situation and ask for the group to slow down. PhilGil no doubt gave them a piece of his Belgian mind and rode on. Hard.

Hitting the climb, Martin and Clark left the rest of the breakaway behind, with the main group containing Rodriguez, Contador and Froome approximately two minutes behind. Valverde gave everything at the base of the climb to try to catch up and he’d made up an impressive amount of time, but in that heat and the peloton in the mood for a little revenge, he was on the rivet and looked cooked for most of the climb. Meanwhile, at the front, Martin and Clarke played cat-and-mouse in the last 500 metres and Clarke sprinted past the German and won with several bike lengths in hand. It was Clarke’s first Grand Tour win – and his first of any description since 2008.

When all was said and done, the red jersey finally slipped out of Movistar’s possession for the first time and on to the shoulders of Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez – by one second.

Rodriguez took over the red jersey from compatriot Valverde (image courtesy of Katusha)

VeloVoices rider of the day

It has to be Alejandro Valverde. My observations on karma are below, but the reason I’ve picked him as rider of the day was because he did an incredible ride back to limit his losses. He had been on the ground, hindered in his chase-back by strong crosswinds and a rampant peloton, but went like the clappers on the final climb to stay in the GC mix. And there is no way this is the last we’re going to hear of this incident – one way or another, I reckon this will ripple through the entire three weeks, not only because he’s mad as hell and is going to ride aggressively, but he and his entire Movistar team are going to ride to punish Sky and, by extension, Chris Froome. It’s all happening on the roads of Spain, boys and girls!

Observations

Remember earlier in the spring when Levi Leipheimer kept crashing in Paris-Nice? Even crashing right into the back of a motorbike, and Movistar drilled it on the front to make sure he wasn’t going to come back? Remember stage three of the Tour de France and that horrible crash that resulted in a broken leg for Sky’s Kanstantsin Siutsou? Movistar not only didn’t wait, but they sent a guy to the front to put the hammer down. Remember that? Well, today Sky had already started their ride to split the peloton when Valverde went down in the crash. The race was already on, the splits were already happening, there was no way they were going to wait – and there was no reason for them to. So, Alejandro, when you go storming to the Sky bus, talkin’ all big and bad about ‘no respect’, remember this: you reap what you sow, dude.

Movistar’s directeur sportif, by the way, blamed Juan Antonio Flecha and Sky for an irregular move which actually caused the crash. Sky’s DS Marcus Ljungqvist said he told the team not to go full gas once he found out the red jersey was on the ground. He hadn’t noticed it was Valverde when the car went by and by the time he realised it, the peloton was well and truly split:

There’s always a lot of confusion straight after a fall and it takes time to know who’s been affected, and who’s been held up behind. Before we knew Valverde was down we were already 50 seconds in front and we had to keep chasing the break before the last climb of the day.

Tactical analysis

In what some thought would be a stage in which the breakaway would stay out all day – we predicted as much in our preview – and the GC would remain the same overnight, they only got part of that right. The crash and the splits put Joaquim Rodriguez in red, with Froome and Contador in second and third at one and five seconds respectively. In fact, the top seven on GC are separated by just 14 seconds. Valverde tumbled to ninth place, with a 36 second deficit – damaging but hardly irrecoverable – one place below Nicolas Roche (AG2R), who had an impressive ride today. Euskaltel’s Igor Anton lost 30 seconds and dropped to 16th, 0:57 down.

There were none of the punishing attacks among the leaders we saw yesterday, a reflection of how hard Contador had driven both his rivals and himself on the Arrate climb. After pushing himself to his absolute limit today to restrict his losses, Valverde will be relieved to know that tomorrow is a relatively easy sprint day rather than another mountain finish, which will aid his recovery.

And although they lost the red jersey at last, Movistar will be relieved to pass the burden of riding in its defence to Katusha. They appeared relaxed about the possibility of losing it anyway – albeit in less dramatic fashion, one suspects. You don’t let a break get 13 minutes up the road on a stage like this if you’re intent on retaining the jersey. Yes, it was a summit finish, but hardly the toughest one, and Tony Martin has demonstrated before – on Mont Ventoux, no less – that he can sustain an advantage on a long climb if he is allowed to set his own tempo. What wouldn’t have been in the plan was to lose the jersey to a direct rival – and a fellow Spaniard at that. But that’s cycling for you.

VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of as many stages as possible on Twitterreviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.

Link: Vuelta a España official website

One thought on “Vuelta a España: Stage 4 review

  1. It was a great loss-limiting ride by Valverde, certainly. But I was so pleased for Simon Clarke, who seems to have been around for a while but is still only 26. Incredible that it is over 4 years – 50 months, in fact – since his last win. It’s been a long time in coming for a good team man and a former junior track world champion. May it be the first of many.

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