Vuelta al Pais Vasco review: Baby Blackbird wins brutal Basque race

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) rode a controlled race and kept his powder dry for the final showdown, an individual time-trial which he won by a fistful of seconds over Nairo Quintana (Movistar). More importantly, Alberto finished 18 seconds ahead of Sergio Henao (Sky) – more than enough to take his fourth title at this race (2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016). Henao, who took the points jersey, dropped to second, while Quintana nudged Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) off the podium to take third.

Rider of the Race

Samu's victory, the paint still wet, captured for me by Greig Leach

Samu’s victory, the paint still wet, captured for me by Greig Leach

It’s simple, it’s BMC’s Samuel Sanchez. This week, in a race which he won in 2012, Samu rolled back his 38 years to take a victory on stage 4 and finish sixth overall – none too shabby given the company he’s been keeping. His stage win came at the end of a tough and undulating 165km, with six categorised leg-sapping climbs traversed before Samu’s winning move. He crossed the line with a beaming smile, recording his eighth stage win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but, more importantly, his first victory since stage 7 of the 2013 Criterium du Dauphine. Everyone was delighted for him.

Let’s hope it’s the first of a clutch of laurel leaves in his final season. (Would someone please pass me a hankerchief?).

Fresh face!

Jonathan Lastra gracing the KOM jersey on day one (image: Richard Whatley)

Jonathan Lastra gracing the KOM jersey on day one (image: Richard Whatley)

Another Spanish stage race and yet another promising young rider from Caja Rural; this time it’s Basque rider Jonathan Lastra. A former three-time national cyclo-cross champion, he joined Caja this season from their development squad, and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco was his first ever WorldTour race. The team wisely allowed the youngster to ride his own race, and, after winning the KOM jersey on stage 1 where he was in the break for 100km, he explained his motivation:

If I am very nervous, it is only to be expected. It’s just the start for me, nothing more. I told myself not to be afraid and, above all, to fight. I’ve only been a professional for a few months and I’m keen to profit from every opportunity. No one should doubt that I’m a fighter.

Folllow Jonathan on his Website,  Twitter and Facebook.

Things that made us go ooooh!

Tough, beautiful parcours: 33 classified climbs, 32 on stages 1-5, of which four were first-category climbs. Okay, so none of them are particularly long, but they are eye-wateringly steep in parts, and do bear in mind that there are hardly any flat roads in the Basque country. Factor in the cold, wet weather, and it’s a tough race; not for the faint-hearted, though ideal preparation for the Ardennes classics and the Giro d’Italia.

Tension: It was a closely contested race. Six stages, six different winners. The main protagonists marked each other tightly; going into Friday’s queen stage, with its summit finish in Arrate, only a handful of seconds separated them. Even then, it was still all to play for on Saturday’s decisive time-trial, up and over the same summit as on Friday. It all made for gripping, edge-of-the-seat viewing.

Teaser: Post-race Alberto said:

I’m reconsidering the future and maybe I’ll continue a little while longer.

Last year’s fresh face: Louis Vervaeke (Lotto Soudal) finished 11th overall and was runner-up in the Best Young Rider category, won by Lawson Craddock (Cannondale). Craddock finished a very creditable ninth, rewarding the faith placed in him by team CEO, Jonathan Vaughters, who said in an interview with Velonews:

The significance of the ride he [Lawson] did [on Friday] — and it may be lost on people, who knows — is that if you can finish top 10 in the Tour of Basque Country, then you can finish top 10 in a grand tour. It’s just tough. I wouldn’t say that about another week-long stage race.

I find myself in agreement with Vaughters; take a long hard look at those who finished in the top 10 in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. We’re talking exalted company.

What does it all mean?

It’s all good news. We’re in for a cracking few months of racing with the leading protagonists finely poised in their preparations for the Ardennes Classics, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. What a mouthwatering prospect!  The only rider currently looking out of sorts is Aru, who was a DNF after falling and hurting his hand when already well off the pace. He’ll need to up his game to be in contention with the likes of Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador in July.

Final results

1. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) 22:44:43

2. Sergio Henao (Sky) +00:12

3. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +00:37

4. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +01:13

5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +01:22

Points Jersey: Sergio Henao (Sky)

King of the Mountains Jersey: Diego Rosa (Astana)

Intermediate Sprints Jersey: Nicolas Edet (Cofidis)

Best Young Rider: Lawson Craddock (Cannondale)

Team Classification Leader: Sky

Stage winners

Stage 1: Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) Final KM here

Stage 2: Mikel Landa (Sky) Final KM here

Stage 3: Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data) Final KM here

Stage 4: Samuel Sanchez (BMC) Final KM here

Stage 5: Diego Rosa (Astana) Final KM here

Stage 6: Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)

Links: Official race websiteTwitter #itzulia and Facebook

Header: The podium, Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco 2016 © Richard Whatley 

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