By Jean-François Quénet in La Roche-sur-Yon
Euskaltel's Koldo Fernandez became the third Basque rider to win the Tour de Vendée. With a strong French peloton including Sylvain Chavanel, Fernandez won against the odds, with the Frenchman falling victim to hunger knock. Previous Basque winners are Mikel Gaztañaga - who won in 2006 and 2007 - and Alberto Leanizbarrutia, who won twenty years ago while riding for TEKA.
Typically taking place in May, the race had been rescheduled for the end of the season. That proved to be an influential move with the participation of the two strongest Spanish teams - Euskaltel and Caisse d'Epargne - in addition to the French contingent.
Since the 1-2 of Franck Bouyer and Walter Bénéteau in 2002 under the colours of Bonjour, local team Bouygues Telecom had never managed to score on home soil. They thought they had done most of the hard work by placing Jérôme Pineau at the head of the race together with Sylvain Chavanel, another former pupil of Jean-René Bernaudeau.
Pineau, the leader of the French cup, was hungry for the win as he prepares to say goodbye to Bouygues and hello to Quickstep for 2009. With riders from continental teams Tony Gallopin (Auber 93), Florian Guillou (Roubaix-Lille-Métropole) and Cyril Gautier (Bretagne-Armor Lux) who will join Bouygues Telecom next year, Chavanel and Pineau created a significant gap. But as in previous years, the Tour de Vendée ended up with a thrilling finale and another bunch sprint.
"As I felt hunger flat at the end, I knew I had lost," said Chavanel. "But I really enjoyed the ride today. I like racing in the rain. Now I'll do Paris-Bourges and then I'll go on holidays." The winner of stage 19 in the Tour de France deserves a nice break after a long and successful season.
Fernandez is also somebody used to winning. It was a fifth for him this year after stage wins at Tour of Murcia, Vuelta Castilla y León, Euskal Bizikleta and Tour of Burgos. "I came out of the Vuelta in good shape," he said. "This was my first time at the Tour de Vendée, and it was a very hard race. I didn't hope to win until the very end because I was convinced that Chavanel would stay away, but with one kilometre to go, I realized there was a possibility to win and I played out my sprint perfectly."
Full results, report and photos are here.