Orica-BikeExchange celebrate second 2016 Vuelta a Espana stage win

Keukeleire a surprise victor in Bilbao

Exactly one week after they took their first victory of the 2016 Vuelta a España with Simon Yates, Orica-BikeExchange were back on top the stage winner's podium in Spain's Grand Tour on Thursday thanks to Belgian fast man Jens Keukeleire.

After Yates made a couple of probing attacks in the last few kilometres, Keukeleire started his sprint for the line with 300 metres to go on Bilbao's Gran Via, a long effort that caught the other remaining sprinters off-guard.

"I was initially thinking about not going too early because there was a headwind, but then I went from so far out because I didn't want to get boxed in," Keukeleire said.

"I took a risk, but I knew a lot of the sprinters were not going to be there."

Kristian Sparagli (Dimension Data), a Vuelta stage winner last year, was arguably the highest profile sprinter in the 44-rider group that disputed the Bilbao stage, but he finally took fourth - "so I think that risk was worth it."

It was the Belgian's first WorldTour victory in a career stretching back to 2010 and which was marked, for better and - given how much it raised expectations perhaps for worse - by a remarkable spring period in his first year.

Six years ago Keukeleire took wins in the GP Samyn, Dreiesdage van West-Vlaanderen (a stage and overall) and the Nokere Koerse in the space of two weeks. Since then there have been stage wins in the Vuelta a Burgos and a top five in Dwars Door Vlaanderen this spring, but rather like Belgian sprinter Gianni Meersman (Etixx-QuickStep), racing the Vuelta this summer has reaped Keukeleire an even richer harvest.

"It's my first Grand Tour victory, something very special, my family came here to Bilbao and that makes it even better," the 27-year-old said.

"We didn't really commit after the last climb to make everything come back to a bunch sprint, but this morning in the team meeting, they'd said I could give it a go if the stage was working out that way, and I'm glad it did."

"This is probably the first day of the Vuelta I could really give it a crack and that's what made it even more special. It's the same as last year when we targeted one stage with Caleb Ewan here and he won it."

Asked about how he and teammate Simon Yates had played out their respective roles in the finale, Keukeleire said his main job during most of the Vuelta was "to look after him or Esteban in finishes like this, just in case they get into trouble."

"To be honest, the first time I did that final climb I was really on the limit and not convinced I'd make it over the second, but actually the next time round I made it through OK."

As Keukeleire was soaking up the victory honours, back in the shadow of the San Mames football stadium where the Orica-BikeExchange bus there were high fives and hugs all round as the team celebrated its latest success.

Talking to reporters as he warmed down outside the team bus, Simon Yates said there had been no big master plan involving himself and Keukeleire, rather "it was always going to be about him if it came down to a sprint today."

"I've actually done this circuit before a couple of years ago in the Vuelta al País Vasco and I knew there wouldn't be that many guys left in the finish.

"There was a bit of chaos and that year I did the same job for [teammate] Michael Matthews, who won a stage there - keeping the race hard, keeping the attacks from going away and making a few myself to really hurt the legs."

"And then Jens managed to pull that one off again, so I'm extremely happy."

"It was very similar," Orica-BikeExchange director Neil Stephens added to Cyclingnews, "actually back then both brothers, Simon and Adam were doing that and this time it was Simon on his own."

"But it was a fantastic job by all the boys, with Simon covering there at the finish and Damien [Howson] being in the right spot to lead Jens out."

Stephens said that at one point "I really thought we had it lost, because Jens was in front at the corner there. But then he managed to bluff his way out of that position and got back into place again to where he needed to be."

Asked what he liked about the Basque Country and racing there, with some good results so far in his career and another good performance on Thursday, Yates said, "I don't know, just hard roads I think. I'm not a big guy, I don't weigh that much, I just really enjoy it here."

"I think the difference is there's no real flat here, it's just climb after climb after climb. And even the roads are really twisty, that makes for really hard races."

"There are a lot of strong guys here, and if you can get a stage win, it makes it all that bit sweeter."

The Basque fans were out in force on the Vivero climb and at the finish, too Yates highlighted the "big crowds you get here always make it good to race here. I even got quite a few people shouting for me up there on the climb, which was a pleasant surprise."

As for Friday's stage across the Basque Country to Urdax in Navarre, Yates says, "it's going to be very tough, a lot of hard roads, these days you can never tell if a break will go though. I thought today that the break would stick, but it didn't, a few guys still keen to chase - I don't know, it seems like a lottery."

So far in this year's Vuelta though, when it comes to stage wins, Orica-BikeExchange are getting very good at buying the right ticket.

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