The opening stage of the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco saw Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) take the win ahead of Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) as the duo just held off Simon Gerrans (Orica-Greenegde), who won the sprint for 3rd place from a select chase group.
While the stage from Etxebarria to Markina-Xemein was a modest 144km in length, it included no less than 8 categorised climbs. 6 of these climbs were squashed into the final 50km of the stage and so naturally, this would be where the stage sprung into life. An early breakaway of 4 riders did animate the majority of the stage but Orica-Greenedge and Tinkoff managed the gap closely to ensure everything came back together before the penultimate, and hardest climb of the stage.
The cat 1 Alto de Ixua was the springboard for a few attacks and Dario Cataldo (Astana) eventually went clear midway up the 6.2km climb. Orica-Greenedge continued to control the pace while our Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka riders paid close attention to the front of the peleton.
Cataldo would summit with a 20″ lead but the peloton had become greatly stretched as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) attacked the main group just before the crest, and caused a selection to take place. At the bottom of the descent, Steve Cummings, Igor Anton, Serge Pauwels, Mekseb Debesay and Natnael Berhane had all made the front group with just the final cat 2 climb remaining inside the last 15km.
Cataldo started the climb with his slender lead in tact but as the main group attacked the climb at a rapid pace, he was caught before the top. Navarro would initiate the most definitive attack of the stage, just before the 8.5km descent to the line started and then Sanchez utilized his superior descending skills to ride across to Navarro on the downhill. Another selection had taken place on the final climb and the group was reduced to just 50 riders.
Our African Team were able to ensure that Cummings and Anton both made it into the favourites group. As the leading duo only had around 10″ for the majority of the drop to the finish, Cummings put in the next attack with 2km to go in an effort to bridge the gap. Our Brit was closely marked though and could not get away. The acceleration did bring the main group onto the tail of the leaders but Sanchez still had just enough of a head start to take the sprint victory. Cummings and Anton would both finish with the same time as all of the race favourites.
Alex Sans Vega – Sport Director
There was a break of 4 initially, which would become 3 after Etixx-Quickstep called their rider back from the breakaway. Tinkoff and Orica controlled the race for most of the day and we were waiting for the final climb to see what options we would have to work with. Steve was feeling good so he tried in the final kilometers but the 2 leaders already had a good enough gap to just make it to the finish. The guys are healthy and looking strong so we are looking forward to the next stages with much optimism.