Vuelta al Pais Vasco review: Colombian cheer

Vuelta al Pais Vasco logoIn a surprising turn of events Nairo Quintana took the overall, having won stage four atop Eibar-Arrate and finished runner-up in the concluding time trial. The 23-year-old wrested the leader’s and points jerseys from fellow Colombian Sergio Henao, with Tasmanian Richie Porte sandwiched in between. Local boy Amets Txurruka claimed the King of the Mountains and sprint jerseys while Movistar were the best team.

Final GC podium (l to r) Porte, Quintana, Henao (image: Richard Whatley)

Final GC podium (l to r) Porte, Quintana, Henao (image: Richard Whatley)

Race summary

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) took his third victory of the season, winning the first stage’s reduced bunch sprint ahead of Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Angel Vicioso (Katusha) after the peloton had been split by a crash near the summit on the final ascent, just 7km from the finish.  Some of the leading contenders fell, were delayed or distanced on the fast, technical descent where Alberto Contador’s (Saxo-Tinkoff) aggression further split the leading group with 17, including many of the favourites, going clear in the last 5km. The two-man break of the day, Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) and Laurent Didier (RadioShack-Leopard), had both been pulled back into the bunch well before the last climb.

Simon Gerrans wins stage 1

Simon Gerrans, victor on stage 1 (image: Richard Whatley)

There was a sense of deja vu on stage two as South Africa’s Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE) repeated his feat of last year, taking the bunch sprint ahead of Astana’s Francesco Gavazzi (who had the consolation of taking over the leader’s jersey), with Vicioso third again. Txurruka was once more out front for most of the day hoovering up the mountain and sprint points. Orica-GreenEDGE kept the gap to a manageable distance, before Lampre-Merida’s Adriano Malori and RadioShack’s evergreen Jens Voigt time-trialled away from the bunch with around 30km remaining, catching Txurruka on the penultimate descent. But all the escapees were back in the pack with 4km to go and it just remained for Orica – specifically race leader Gerrans – to lead Impey to the finishing line.

That man Impey's won the second stage two years in a row!

That man Impey wins the second stage for the second year in a row! (image: Richard Whatley)

Sergio Henao (Sky) was the strongest in the Colombian shoot-out on stage three’s 167.7km stage to the top of the 7.4km climb La Lajana – technical and wickedly steep in parts – which left many slumped over their handlebars, exhausted. In a scene straight from Groundhog Day, that man Txurruka was out in the break again. The Astana-led peloton wisely didn’t allow them too much leeway and everyone was safely back in the bunch well before the final trial of strength. Movistar moved to the head of the peloton to set up their Colombian, Nairo Quintana, who eventually finished fourth. Ultimately it was Henao and baby-faced Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) who went mano a mano all the way to the line, with the former shading it in a photo-finish. Katusha’s Giampaolo Caruso was third. Henao’s victory saw him take the leader’s and points jerseys while Txurruka’s three straight breakaway days saw him build an unassailable lead in the sprint and mountain competitions.

In the battle of the Colombians, Henao just shades it over Betancur (image: Richard Whatley)

In the battle of the Colombians, Henao just shades it over Betancur (image: Richard Whatley)

The following day was the turn of 23-year-old Quintana to take victory, as he soloed away from the leading group in the final 100 metres or so on the downhill dip to the finish, gaining two seconds on Henao and third-placed Contador. To the delight of the public who had braved freezing fog and pouring rain, a final spurt from Samu Sanchez moved him up the GC.

The day started with a dangerous trio including Andy Schleck (RadioShack) making an unsuccessful bid for freedom, with the main break established only after 46km of the 151,6km road to Eibar-Arrate. The Sky-led peloton never allowed the gap to grow much beyond five minutes, slowly reeling them in as they wound their way up and around Eibar. With under 40km to go, the break and the chasing pack fractured all over the first category Basque-lined Isua climb. Having regrouped on the descent, Sky slowly whittled down the gap and, at the foot of the ultimate climb, conceded responsibility for leadership to Movistar. In-form winner of the GP Miguel Indurain Simon Spilak (Katusha) led the charge only to be joined by the other contenders who matched one another up the climb until Quintana rode away.

He's getting the hang of those bottles! Nairo Quinata (Movistar) winner of stage 4

He’s getting the hang of those bottles! Nairo Quintana (Movistar) wins stage 4 (image: Richard Whatley)

On the penultimate day’s ten-climb test Richie Porte (Sky) clearly hadn’t read the script, as he disappointed the large Basque crowd who’d braved pouring rain, hail and near freezing conditions, by jumping away in the dying kilometres to overhaul defending champion Sanchez, who finished second, four seconds back, along with third-placed race leader Henao and most of the other contenders. The 166.1km route from Eibar to Beasain was punctuated with attacks which saw groups of riders spread all over the parcours and riders climbing off their bikes each time the pack came through the finish town – only 73 finished the stage!

However, Sky were always pulling the strings and anyone still in contention was in the leading bunch heading for the final ascent. Sanchez crested the summit first, pursued by the Sky boys and Spilak but sadly Samu failed to record his team’s first win of the season. None of the jerseys changed hands but only that of the leader still hung in the balance with Porte six seconds behind teammate Henao but four seconds ahead of Contador.

That wasn’t the only surprise of the day, though:

That's the look of a determined man! Four seconds ained for Richie Porte

That’s the look of a determined man! Four precious seconds gained for Richie Porte (image: Richard Whatley)

In the final day’s challenging 24km time trial, world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) set the winning time of 35:05 early on. Overall favourite Porte was 40 seconds slower and, surprisingly, finished fourth behind Quintana – proving Colombians can time trial on hilly terrain – with Basque Benat Inxausti (Movistar) third.

Stage six winner Tony Martin, wearing the rainbow jersey of the reigning world TT champion (image: Richard Whatley)

Stage six winner Tony Martin, wearing the rainbow jersey of the reigning world TT champion (image: Richard Whatley)

Afterwards Quintana declared:

I’m super happy with this overall victory and time trial result, where I performed better than I expected. I’ve been feeling good these past few days and again today I had such a good feeling that I had to take advantage. It was a short time trial which favoured me and I managed my efforts well. It was quite slippery and I took risks on the descents. In fact, I almost fell on one occasion, but on the last descent I knew I’d done enough and could relax.

Analysis & opinion

Last year we proclaimed Colombians the must-have accessory in the mountains for those challenging in the Grand Tours. This year they’re the key piece in the season’s wardrobe. Messrs Betancur, Henao and overall winner Quintana, despite their youth and relative inexperience, have proved they can challenge the best over a difficult parcours, whatever the conditions, and deserve their plaudits.

Of course, Sky, Movistar and Ag2r won’t be the only teams leaving with smiles on their faces. Orica-GreenEDGE bagged two stage wins, spent two days in the leader’s jersey and Pieter Weening finished sixth overall. I suspect that both Saxo-Tinkoff and Euskaltel-Euskadi will be satisfied with the overall progress of their respective leaders given their forthcoming Grand Tour challenges.

Basque sensibilities were spared by Amets Txurruka who monopolised the mountains classification jersey and, ironically, the Euskaltel-sponsored orange sprint jersey earning plenty of press coverage and cheer for his new squad Caja Rural after being dropped at the end of last year by Euskaltel. Best placed Basque overall was Movistar’s Benat Intxausti in eighth – another former Euskaltel rider.

A number of teams such as BMC used the race to fine-tune form for the forthcoming Ardennes classics. Despite the high attrition rate, most teams finished with at least one rider, except Argos-Shimano who I suspect simply ran out of clean kit! On a final note, it was good to see Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) back in action after his serious fall last year.


1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 21:39:35

2. Richie Porte (Sky) +0:23

3. Sergio Henao (Sky) +0:34

4. Simon Spilak (Katusha) +0:35

5. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) +0:54

6. Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE) +1:18

7. Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) +1:19

8. Benat Intxausti (Movistar) +1:57

9. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) +2:47

10, John Gadret (Ag2r La Mondiale) +2:56

Links: PreviewOfficial website

Tour of Beijing review

Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin brought his 2012 season to a successful conclusion by seeing double for the second time in a month.

Having already successfully defended his World time trial title, an opportunistic solo attack propelled him to victory in the second edition of the Tour of Beijing – the final WorldTour race of the year – to add to his overall win in last year’s inaugural event.

Stage 1: Tiananmen Square to Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, 117km

Elia Viviani took victory in a chaotic bunch finish to claim the first red leader’s jersey of the race. The Liquigas-Cannondale sprinter, who also won a stage last year, snuck up the outside of the pack in the final 100 metres and held off Andrew Fenn (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) by 1½ lengths.

Yes, the CCTV building is supposed to look like this … (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There was no open-top bus, but this short first stage provided a spectator and viewer-friendly tour of some of Beijing’s most prominent sights. Starting in Tiananmen Square, the peloton rolled out along the front of the Forbidden City before embarking on a 12-lap circuit of the city centre, with the finish adjacent to the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube. Fortunately, the hazardous smog levels of previous days which had led to suggestions that the stage be cancelled or shortened were greatly reduced by overnight wind which saw the race start under bright blue skies.

As expected, the day’s five-man break included a rider from local Pro Continental team Champion System, although it was surprising to see that it was American Craig Lewis rather than one of the team’s Chinese riders. He was the last man to be swept up on the penultimate circuit before a chaotic closing lap in which no one team wanted or was able to take control of the lead-out. Liquigas were content to keep their powder dry and sit 15-20 back in the pack, positioning Viviani neatly on the far left of the bunch with a clear run to launch his winning sprint.

Stage 2: Bird’s Nest to Men Tou Gou, 126km

Defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) shrugged off the absence of a time trial on this year’s parcours with a 26km solo attack which established a 50-second lead and put all his rivals firmly on the back foot.

Martin timed his attack to perfection (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)

With the day’s three categorised climbs – first, third and second category respectively – all occurring relatively far from the finish, the pre-race debate centred more on whether the sprinters’ teams would be able to bring the bunch back together in time to set up their men. And initially the race looked to be following a predictable pattern, with the early five-man break seeing a three-minute lead evaporate on the Cat 1 Gad Ya Kou, a testing 10.8km climb averaging 6.4%. However, the pace was sufficient to break the peloton into three parts. It would never reform, as an elite group including both Martin and his no-relation namesake Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) bridged across to the leaders.

Martin put in his decisive dig over the top of the final climb, establishing a gap over the rest of what by then had been whittled down to an eight-man lead group as the others fatally hesitated and failed to organise. He was able to start celebrating 3km from the finish line, which he crossed 46 seconds ahead of the rest of the lead group, with 15 others four seconds behind. The rest of the peloton were over two minutes further in arrears.

The double time trial world champion expressed his delight after the stage:

I came to China to try to get a good result, even if there was no time trial this year. I knew I had to try something without the TT. About 25km from the finish there was a little downhill section after the climb. I turned and saw I had a small gap between me and the rest of the group, so I decided to go. Then I did my own time trial, giving my best — it worked in the end.

It’s super nice because it is unusual to win a road stage. I am always happy to win the time trials, but it is quite amazing for me to win a stage like this.

Stage 3: Men Tou Gou to Badaling Great Wall, 162.5km

Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen made a gutsy late solo bid for victory in the shadow of the Great Wall, only to agonisingly hit the wall himself and be overtaken within touching distance of the finish by Francesco Gavazzi (Astana), who went one better than his second-place finish the previous day.

Gavazzi secured his first win for over a year (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

A strong seven-man break including Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM), Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEDGE) went away after around 35km and established a lead of close to five minutes before the inevitable chase and catch. Meier was the last to succumb to the pursuing peloton inside the final 10km, leading to counter-attacks by first AG2R’s Sylvain Georges and then, with 4km to go, Euskaltel’s Igor Anton.

As others hesitated, Boasson Hagen leapt off the front of the bunch, catching Anton just before the 3km banner and continuing on over the top of him. On the twisting 1km climb to the finish, the Norwegian champion’s lead was as large as 17 seconds. However, with the testing 6.4% gradient causing him to visibly labour, Garmin’s Dan Martin put in a massive effort to chase him down, only for both to be overhauled by the fast-finishing Gavazzi in the final 25 metres. It was the Italian’s maiden win in Astana colours and his first since stage 18 of last year’s Vuelta, and consolidated his position in second on the GC, 40 seconds behind Tony Martin.

Stage 4: Yanqing to Chang Ping, 165.5km

Katusha’s Marco Haller took his first professional win ahead of the veteran Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD). as Tony Martin had no problem defending his 40-second advantage on the penultimate stage.

Haller celebrated his first pro win (image courtesy of Katusha)

On a fairly straightforward day containing just three Cat 3 climbs, the peloton had little difficulty chasing down the day’s five-man break, with escape expert Jeremy Roy (FDJ-BigMat) the last to be caught with more than 5km still to run. Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank and Lampre initially controlled the run-in, while Sky attempted to set up Edvald Boasson Hagen inside the final kilometre. However, as Petacchi opened up the sprint with around 250 metres to go, he simply did not have the top-end speed to hold off Haller, who eased past him to win by 1½ lengths. Stage one winner Elia Viviani was third.

The 21-year old Austrian celebrated ecstatically with his teammates after the finish, and was delighted to have taken his maiden pro win in such exalted company:

I am unbelievably happy to win today, on a UCI WorldTour event. I never expected to beat riders like Viviani, Petacchi or Boasson Hagen.

I had a high speed and felt quite easy. I was thinking: “My God! It’s possible to win! It’s really possible!” And I won!

Stage 5: Chang Ping to Ping Gu, 182.5km

A 12-man breakaway provided the springboard for two rabbits to escape the chasing hounds, as Steve Cummings (BMC) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) eased away from their fellow escapees on the last of the day’s three climbs. They maintained just enough daylight between them and the peloton – 17 seconds – for Cummings to ease past the Giro d’Italia champion in a two-up sprint to claim his second victory of a year in which he lost half the season to injury and illness.

In the intervening kilometres of the race’s longest stage, Dan Martin led over the first two climbs to secure the mountains classification, while Edvald Boasson Hagen picked up two bonus seconds at intermediate sprints to move him level with Martin in third overall. The Norwegian champion then claimed an additional four seconds as he won the sprint for third place at the line to secure the bottom step of the podium behind overall winner Tony Martin and runner-up Francesco Gavazzi.

Boasson Hagen also won the points competition, while Rafal Majka (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) – eighth overall – was the best young rider.

Closing thoughts

Although he is best known as a master time-trialist, this was Tony Martin‘s sixth career stage race win – that’s five more than Andy Schleck, folks – on a palmares which includes the overall at Paris-Nice in 2011. With his perfectly timed attack on stage two, he underlined his class as a fantastic racer as well as a top all-round rider. (Speaking of Schleck the Younger, his dismal 2012 season ended in predictable fashion as he abandoned 42km into the final stage.)

The second edition of the Tour of Beijing certainly had a much more interesting parcours than last year. Although most stages remained slanted towards the quick men, there was a finer balance between the sprinters and breakaway artists which ensured exciting finishes to the flat stages, while the punchy climb at the end of stage three provided the most exciting climax of the lot.

However, the biggest issues for the race remain its end-of-season timing, meaning many teams and riders turn up out of obligation as much as anything, and a lack of enthusiasm from the locals, with roadside fans being noticeably sparse in numbers even for the city centre finishes. There is still much work to be done here to turn this into both a commercial and sporting success, but this year was definitely a step in the right direction. As the Chinese themselves might say, the Great Wall wasn’t built in a day.

There are still a couple of races remaining in Europe, but this now concludes the 2012 UCI WorldTour. Bradley Wiggins ultimately had to concede the number one ranking to Joaquim Rodriguez after the latter won Il Lombardia, but his Sky squad dominated the team standings, with the Spaniard’s Katusha outfit a distant second.

This also concludes VeloVoices’ race coverage for this year, but we’ll be keeping busy over the next few weeks as we look back on the races, riders and stories which made up the 2012 season. Stay with us!

General classification

1. Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 17:16:56

2. Francesco Gavazzi (Astana) +0:40

3. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) +0:46

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) +0:50

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:52

6. Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale) +0:56

7. Tomasz Marczynski (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

8. Rafal Majka (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) s/t

9. Rui Costa (Movistar) +1:00

10. Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) s/t

Links: PreviewOfficial website