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Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) won the stage and took the race lead
Belgian bounces back from Paris-Nice DNF to win opening stage in Spain
Belgium's Gianni Meersman added to Omega Pharma - Quick-Step's rousing start to the 2013 season with both the stage victory and leader's jersey in Monday's opening day of racing at the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. The canny Belgian, while not a frequent winner but always a threat from small groups, managed to make the decisive 13-rider split forced by Team Sky on the stage's final categorised climb, particularly the technical descent off the third category Alt de Collsacreu, already negotiated twice earlier in the stage.
Meersman stayed firmly planted at the rear of the lead group so as to keep track of all his rivals and once in sight of the finish line the 27-year-old Belgian launched a lengthy sprint up the right side of the road from the back of the group to claim the eighth victory of his career and his first since stage 4 of last year's Paris-Nice.
"I'm in a good mood about the victory," Meersman said. "Volta Ciclista a Catalunya was one of my objectives. I want to do well in this race. I won and that's fantastic, even considering the names at the front."
Among the riders Meersman outkicked in the stage 1 finale were three former Volta Ciclista a Catalunya champions in Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Also prominent in the lead group was Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins (Sky) who drove the break on the Alt de Collsacreu descent and provided much of the horsepower which ultimately put the 13 riders 28 seconds up on the peloton. With the winner's time bonus factored in, Meersman leads runner-up Valerio Agnoli (Astana) by four seconds and Alejandro Valverde by six seconds on general classification. The remainder of the lead group is 10 seconds behind Meersman, with the peloton facing a 38-second deficit after the opening stage.
Meersman made the jump from rival Belgian team Lotto Belisol to Omega Pharma-Quick Step for 2013 and has notched the team's 14th road victory of the year, the best of any ProTeam thus far this season. Meersman was quick to thank his teammates, particularly those who spent much of the stage at the front of the peloton bringing back the early two-man break of Cristiano Salerno (Cannondale) and Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEdge), whose advantage over the peloton grew to more than eight minutes.
"They were unbelievable today," said Meersman, "especially Julien Vermote and Carlos Verona. They started pulling from the beginning and if they hadn't done this, we would not have caught the break. So, they did a great job."
Meersman was hoping to repeat his success of the 2012 Paris-Nice, where he won stage 4, with another stage victory this year, but the Belgian abandoned on stage 5 with a 6th place result on the second stage his best showing at the French WorldTour race.
"I was forced to abandon Paris-Nice and was a little disappointed because I knew my condition was there, but I wasn't able to show it. So, I stayed two days at home and then went to Calpe to train with Dries Devenyns and Pieter Serry. We did good work together and today, all the hard work paid off. Sometimes in cycling you have to be a little bit lucky and also have the good condition to do the right thing."
Meersman will start Tuesday's second stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya resplendent in the leader's jersey and hopes to continue his successful foray in Spain.
"Tomorrow is another stage for riders with my skills," said Meersman. "This year the goal was to be good in WorldTour races, and more consistent throughout the season. I want to be more of a presence in the peloton, so this was a good start."