45th Vuelta al Pais Vasco - PT
Spain, April 4-8, 2005
Oso Ondo! ["very Good" in Basque]
By Martin Hardie
David Moncoutié of Cofidis took a gripping finale to today's key stage to the top of La Lejana. Moncoutié beat Aitor Osa in a tense slow motion 'sprint' over the final hundred metres's 18 percent plus ramps. Osa, who won the Itzulia back in 2002 now takes the overall leader's jersey. Danilo Di Luca, who finished three seconds behind the pair and was accompanied by Patrice Halgand and Davide Rebbelin now has to make do with wearing the points classification jersey. Iban Mayoz did enough today to keep the meta volantes lead and Ion Bru of Kaiku took over the mountains jersey.
Although the day went to Cofidis and the Illes Balears team, the scene was set in many ways by the aggressive style of the young Basque squad, Kaiku. Bru was involved in the day's first adventure with Moncoutié's teammate Bingen Fernández. Ricardo Serrano, who attacked strongly to set the scene for yesterday's havoc on the Garate did the same again today and almost managed to hang on till the last with Osa and Moncoutié. Bru said after the race that the team "was satisfied with the way we are going. It is important for us as a young team to ride well at home and to try hard to make an impression, important for us and for our sponsor." Kaiku, who produce some of the creamiest milk around, have taken a gamble with a young squad who are slowly making their mark in the Pro Tour's continental league and this outing is for them one of the year's most important. Quite possibly, Bru or Serrano could have milked a grand victory for Kaiku today, but alas that was not meant to be.
How it unfolded
The stage was nervous from the gun with numerous attempts to escape but none successful until another of the young milkmen, Andoni Aranaga got away just before the day's second climb, the Arieto. He soon formed a group with Bingen Fernandez (Cofidis) and his teammate Ion Bru. They quickly started to build a gap. Behind, a surprise move by Euskaltel's Iban Mayo was quickly neutralised by the peloton even though he is said to be suffering from flu and well over a minute down, nobody was going to allow him to have any freedom. Heading into Bilbao the trio had got their gap up over four minutes as behind Liquigas undertook the duties of controlling the pace, which was not slow as the first two hours were done at an average of 47km/h. Soon after, Bingen Fernández achieved every Bizkaian's dream when he was the first past the Meta Volante banner at Athletic Bilbao's myhtical home ground, San Mames, while Aranaga and Bru followed as they had something else in mind.
As the course left the Bizkaian capital, which is built allover the steep slopes of the River Nervion's valleys, it hit the narrow rural roads that lead to the climb of La Arboleda. Bru had conserved his lactics for here and he went about putting on a pace that that Fernández couldn't follow. The cloudy day started to turn sunny as he milked an advantage of 1.50. La Arboleda is only a 4.2 km climb that averages 8.33 percent, but kicks in much harder than that on a number of its ramps. Its main difficulty is the narrow road that leads to it and that snakes up the side of the mount.
As the peloton neared the narrowing roads behind, the contendors all looked to find a perfect position so as not lose time. Euskaltel's Iker Camano, commented before the stage that the ascent of La Arboleda, was going to be "tricky". "It is a tricky stage... and I think it is going to decide the Vuelta together with the final stage and the time trial. Position will be fundamental. The most strategic point is at Putxetas, (at the foot of the climb to La Arboleda). You have to have your feet on the ground because it is not going to be possible for 200 riders to enter onto this road at once. Once the first rider gets to the top, I am sure the last one will not have commenced the climb. most know this place but if you come there at the back it will be very hard. And to top it off you have the finish on top of La Lejana!"
The jostling for the turn on to the climb proved fatal for Camano's teammate Egoi Martinez who fell, along with Davitamon-Lottos's Serge Baguet. Both had to retire, Martinez we were told by Julian Gorospe with a suspected broken collar bone. Ruggero Borghi (Domina Vacanze) soon followed them to the showers when he jumped off on the climb. The peloton hit the hill in indian file, Fernández and Aranaga were quickly swept up, whilst Bru, ahead, reached the summit holding his gap at 1.35. Eladio Jiménez (Kelme) and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) led the peloton over the top and from here on in was roller coaster ride until the final eight kilometre climb to La Lejana.
As the race progressed, the head of affairs in the peloton was guarded by Pellizotti, Garzelli, Noe and Cioni, with Di Luca tucked in their safety. Bru continued to hold his lead thru Muskiz and towards the Alto de Cobaron - could he hang on? Could Bru milk a win for Kaiku? The problem was that behind him, as his gap fell to around a minute, the attcaks started one after another with riders trying to steal a march before the Cobaron, which winds up a steep little road through eucalyptus close to the beach. Sevila, Pasamontes, Danileson all had their turns. All of this action quickly cut Bru's lead down and it dissappeared as the succession of attacks were met with reaction after reaction after reaction. Communitat Valenicia's David Muñoz actually made it across to Bru and the pair were left to hang out in full view of the following bunch. Then Camano, Jalabert, Cunego and Arvesen all started to mix it up. The front of the peloton was alive with attempts on the short litle beast of a climb. Szmyd (Lampre), Arvesen (CSC) and Sevilla (T-Mobile) crested first as Bru's day had been brought to its conclusion.
Averesen was joined by Laurent Lefevre (Bouygues Telecom) on the descent. Avezedo was also trying to get involved but couldn't stick in. Arvesen and Lefreve started to hold a lead that never really got out to more than 30 seconds, and their short lived escapade ended on a nasty crest heading back inland. Into the last ten kilomters, Rabobank swarmed over the front of the race, seemingly looking to launch Menchov on the final mountain. As they started the ascent still in the town of Trapagaran, David Blanco attacked on a curve as the buildings turned to forest. He was soon followed by Rabobank's Peter Weening, who just kept on going leaving Blanco stuck out by himself. Weening started to make a nice gap. Blanco in between was being haunted by the likes of Cunego, Rassmussen, Rebellin and Moncoutié all mixing it up. With five km to go a Oscar Pereiro was dragging a grupetto, Azevedo, Halgand, Vinokourov, Contador, Etxaberria and a lone Kaiku were visible. Weening, who wondered about the birthday present he might give himself today, had 15 seconds on them as they all seemed to just be looking at each other. It was perfect for the little guy to make the move. Ricardo Serrano, who had exploded the race on the Garate yesterday, jumped. The others looked at each other again. Ricardo who seems to have an enourmous burst of power on these climbs was with Weening in a blink of the eye. The only one to react from behind was Valencia's strong man Carlos Garcis Quesada. Serrano and Weening had 16 seconds on Garcia Quesada and behind there was left agroup of six or so - Aitor Osa, Oscar Pereiro, Alberto Contador were identifiable.
With three km to the summit Aitor Osa just stood up and said goodbye, dropping them all without a second thought. Through the switchbacks he rapidly made his way to the leading pair and the three had 12 seconds on the others. As Osa sat in, Moncoutié who must have been there as well decided he had enough of the staring out. Vicioso and Cunego tried but couldn't make the distance. Just before the one kilometre banner Moncoutié reached the leading trio. Behind it was still an attack-fest! Weening led them into the narrow section were the crowd closed right in, its was steep 16 - 18 percent and more, Moncoutié countered, Osa left them and Moncoutié, well he countered again. Serrano hung in as long as he could but it became mano a mano, shoulder to shoulder, almost slow motion through the final hundreds of metres. Behind those that thought they should be in it were swarming again, all over the road in a slow, steep, sprint trying to cle them in. Moncoutié got it, just! And Osa had the lead "for consolation".
"I got into the break and went every time it split but still I didn't have the strength when we got to the finish," Osa said after the stage. "I know it is important to take the leader's jersey, but it is always nice to win like Moncoutié has done today. I was a bit disspointed with second position. It is always a pain to come second. I am not sure what will happen now. I am not going to launch a flying campaign. You have to go day by day, because the enemies have the shadows. Rebellin, Di Luca, to cite just a few. Nothing is clear."
They say, the Itzulia will come down to the last day. It usually does. But there are still enough encounters that can break the race and a rider before Friday to mix it up some more. And tomorrow, as it heads up onto the plateau of Araba, I seem to have in the back of mind a stage that is identical to the one we have this Thursday when a dare devil descent, on snow affected roads, saw Osa pick up more than enough time to hold off the Itzulia's perennial bridegroom, David Etxebarria to give Eusebio Unzue's boys their first win in 11 years. I wonder if they will try it again? But first we have to get up the plateau to Vitoria, a stage that generally works well for a bunch finish.