A hilly and hotly contested Vuelta al Pais Vasco saw Alberto Contador take his second overall victory this season – his third in this race – by nearly a minute from rising star Michal Kwiatkowski..
Watch out – he’s back!
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is back (almost) to the grand tour winner of old. He rode a largely anonymous race here last year despite finishing fifth overall. Not so this time. The winner of this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico signalled his intent for July. Of course, Alberto knows the Basque area well, having won here twice before (2008, 2009) and raced here frequently as a youngster. He’d even recced the route of the final day time trial the Saturday before the race started. He’s a rider who always does his homework and leaves as little as possible to chance. A man after my own heart.
Alberto crafted his victory with a solo attack on the final climb on the tricky first stage, with its eight categorised climbs, where he managed to put 14 seconds into the man most likely to go mano a mano with him, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
On the queen stage (four) summit finish in Eibar-Arrate, he lost two precious seconds to Valverde, who put in a late surge on the final 2km slight downhill to the finish.
However, Tinkoff-Saxo saw off the daily Movistar offensive and managed to keep Alberto ever-present in the leading group on all the other stage finishes to preserve his slender lead going into the final day. He then consolidated his advantage in the concluding individual time trial – job well done. Indeed, he finished only seven seconds down on the stage winner, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
It turned out that Valverde had put insufficient time into noted time-trialists Kwiatkowski and Frenchman Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale), who both leapt over him and onto the podium on the final day. To add insult to injury, the young Pole also reclaimed possession of the points jersey. Valverde had to settle for fifth overall.
Alberto wasn’t the only rider signalling a return to form. Panzerwagen Martin infiltrated the break on stage two only to leave them standing 20km from the finish where, despite the best efforts of the peloton, he wasn’t to be denied his first individual victory of the season.
He was also instrumental in teammate Wouter Poels’ win on stage four as he single-handedly closed the gap to the peloton at the foot of the final decisive climb. Unsurprisingly, Martin also won the final day’s time trial, aping his feat of last year. OPQS might be having a disappointing season on the cobbles but not so down in the Basque country where, with three stage wins, the points jersey, second and tenth places overall, it was an exceedingly good week.
A number of teams and riders view this race as an excellent finishing ground for forthcoming races, particularly the Ardennes classics. Performances of note from former winners such as Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana) Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Frank Schleck (Trek), seemingly now consciously uncoupled from his younger brother Andy, who was allegedly also taking part in the race. And, of course, Valverde has been on fire this season and pushed Alberto all the way until the final hurdle.
It was good to see Peraud challenging for honours once more after his crash and retirement in last year’s final individual time trial in the Tour de France when he was highly placed. No doubt he too has his eyes firmly fixed on July. And what about young Kwiatkowski? What else is the Strade Bianche winner going to add this year to his ever-growing palmares?
Looking ahead to the Giro, Cadel Evans (BMC) rode a steady race, ably supported by new wing-man Samu Sanchez. He slipped off the podium in the final time trial but still finished seventh. Coming nicely into form is fellow BMC rider Tejay van Garderen, who’ll be leading the team at the Tour de France this year. He finished sixth.
A quick scan of the results reveals promising performances by a number of younger riders: a top 20 place for Britain’s Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE), the king of the mountains jersey for Davide Villella (Cannondale), the hot sprints jersey for Omar Fraille (Caja Rural) and a stage win for Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE). Honourable mentions should also go to a trio of other youngsters who animated the racing: Bob Jungels (Trek), Romain Sicard (Europcar) and Jon Izagirre (Movistar).
The sun shone pretty much throughout the race, making a pleasant change from its last two editions. Weather aside, the Basque cycling fans were, as ever, out in force and enthusiastically cheering on their local riders, none more so than fan favourite Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) who, apart from animating the first stage, had a relatively quiet race. The best placed Basque was Astana’s Mikel Landa.
Race at a glance
3 – The number of times Alberto Contador has won this race (2008, 2009, 2014).
26 – Categorised climbs in this year’s 840.8km event.
4 – Sets of brothers taking part in the race: Schleck (Trek), Izagirre (Movistar), Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) and Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE).
20 – The age of the youngest rider Alberto Bettiol (Cannondale).
Stage 1: Winner – Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). Leader – Contador.
Stage 2: Winner – Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Leader – Contador.
Stage 3: Winner – Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE). Leader – Contador.
Stage 4: Winner – Wouter Poels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). Leader – Contador.
Stage 5: Winner – Ben Swift (Sky). Leader – Contador.
Stage 6: Winner – Martin. Overall winner – Contador
1. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) 21:09:11
2. Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) +0:49
3. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) +1:04
4. Simon Spilak (Katusha) +1:07
5. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) same time
6. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) +1:56
7. Cadel Evans (BMC) s/t
8. Yury Trofimov (Katusha) +2:13
9. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +2:14
10. Wouter Poels (OPQS) +2:26