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Carlos Sastre (Team CSC)
Leonardo Bertagnolli has marked a splendid return to his best by winning the 27th edition of the Clásica San Sebastián today in Spain. The 29 year-old Italian of Team Liquigas escaped at 11 kilometres remaining of the 225-kilometre race with Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick.Step Innergetic) to then overpower the Spaniard in a head to head sprint on the hot finishing straight along the Bay of Biscay. A small chase headed by Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) finished around a half-minute back.
The sixth-year professional from Trento had to stop for a month this spring for what doctors diagnosed as cardiac arrhythmia but he was able to build back to top-form and mark his first win after 17 months.
"This was one of my most important victories, as important as the stage win of the Vuelta a España and the stage win of the Giro d'Italia," proudly stated Bertagnolli to Cyclingnews after the day of work. "After the health problems I had this year and the five-month break in competition I was had to make I am very happy about my win in San Sebastián. [sister city of Trento - ed.]
"I did not expect to win, but when I saw that Gárate began the sprint very early, I knew that I had luck."
Bertagnolli said 'grazie' to his Liquigas team that signed him on from Cofidis this last winter. "I dedicate this victory to my team that let me recuperate without pressure."
The Alto de Jaizkibel at 32 kilometres to go did not finalize the race but it definitely helped decide it. At the top of the 465-metre climb the small move of José Luis Arrieta (Ag2r Prévoyance), Michael Albasini (Liquigas) and Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick.Step Innergetic) was barely holding on to its gains. Spaniard Arrieta went full throttle down the race's major climb (number six in total) but behind him, at under one minute, was a group of who's who in cycling.
"When we had three minutes, and I saw that David López was with us," Luis Arrieta explained of the escape. "I thought that Caisse d'Epargne perhaps would not work hard to reach us but when I saw that López could not follow us I saw it difficult to win because we did not really have a big advantage."
Valverde, Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Ballan, 2006 winner Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), consistent Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) and four Quick.Step riders were out for the kill. The Alto de Gurutze did the deed when Valverde attacked like mad to squash the three front runners and cleared the way for a Gárate and Bertagnolli to go clear on the descent.
Arrieta was satisfied that he took the day's mountain's competition. "The win of the mountain classification makes me proud, because the Clásica is a very prestigious race."
Belgium-based Quick.Step played the team card to perfection by putting Van de Walle in the escape and then countering with Gárate once the trio's move was caught. When the 2005 Spanish Champion went up the road he left Barredo and Italian Champ Giovanni Visconti to mark any move that would attempt to go clear.
The duo's move looked like an aperitif for the final showdown but as the kilometres ticked by it became apparent that it had substance.
Through the congested outskirts of the Basque city Gárate and Bertagnolli kept swapping the duties on the front and by the unclassified Alto de Miracruz at three kilometres remaining they had 38 seconds. The gap was made more convincing by the total lack of responsibilities in the chase. Caisse had giving up its efforts, Saunier Duval had fired its missile with José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Euskaltel's Mikel Astarloza was being heavily marked. The Basque was able to make it off the front but he was discouraged by Asturiana rider Barredo who was covering for Gárate.
Gárate had the faster finish on paper and he led through the semi-curve that saw the successful launch of Florencio last year. However, Bertagnolli had some gas left in his tank to power the thrusters one last time. He throttled at 100 metres remaining with Gárate on his left and the Bizkaiko Golkoa on his right to mark an emotional return to the top.
"I began to sprint too early," noted a disappointed Gárate. "I thought that I was faster than Bertagnolli in the sprint. As we passed lots of kilometres away, I was tired. I intended to surprise him, but that did not work. In the end, I reached his back wheel, but it was impossible for me to give more."
Valverde had the help of his Caisse d'Epargne gunner Joaquím Rodríguez in the race's finale but 'The Green Bullet' was left with an uncooperative four-man move into San Sebastián. Ballan, Sastre, Astarloza and Barredo were not eager to help the winner of the 2006 Liège-Bastogne-Liège add yet another trophy into his Murcian treasure chest. The group battled for third while Bertagnolli fell into the arms of his soigneur. Valverde proved his speed to take third over Ballan with Barredo in fifth, Astarloza sixth and Sastre seventh.
How it unfolded
The Clásica San Sebastián celebrated its 27th birthday on Saturday as more than 150 riders set off under sunny skies and temperatures just under 30°C.
An escape broke away after just 30 kilometers; initiated by Paolo Bossoni (Lampre-Fondital). He was followed by Francesco Bellotti (Crédit Agricole), three riders from Euskaltel and Mauro Facci (Quick.Step Innergetic).
Pressure in the main pack broke the peloton down to a chasing group of about 30 as the lead group whittled down to four riders. Four became three when José Luis Arrieta (Ag2r Prévoyance) led over the Alto de Jaizkibel followed by Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick.Step Innergetic) and Michael Albasini (Liquigas) and dropped David López García (Caisse d'Epargne).
The leaders had only a 50-second advantage after the second-to-last climb. Behind them, Alejandro Valverde attacked the main group but was quickly covered. So he attacked again and was able to bridge to the three leaders, bringing a smaller contingent from the chase group with him.
Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick.Step Innergetic) and Leonardo Bertagnolli (Liquigas) built a small gap over the new leading group into the final climb.
As the unclassified Alto de Miracruz started, the duo had about 20 seconds on the chase. Ballan attacked from behind. Sastre, Valverde, Astarloza and Barredo stuck with him.
But the two leaders held their lead and Bertagnolli led Garate under the 1K to go marker. Garate fired through the final corner and the pair go head-to-head with 300 meters to go but Bertagnolli muscled past to take the win after 5.12.44 of racing.
Valverde led led the group of five over the line for third.